Still, Trump is incorrect in saying that these countries have done nothing to stem the outflow of people. After the unexpected 2014 surge of migrant children and families, the United States devised the Strategy for Engagement in Central America, a comprehensive multiyear approach to replace Washington’s conventional narrow focus on fighting the drug trade. In the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, the Northern Triangle governments promised to fund complementary investments, especially in infrastructure, education, and law enforcement. Both plans explicitly aimed to discourage emigration by expanding economic opportunities, increasing security, and improving government effectiveness.
Initial spending on these multifaceted initiatives began in 2016. Of an eventual $1.8 billion in U.S. funds, most were to be allocated to nongovernmental organizations that had been contracted to implement the programs at the local level. In all, the Northern Triangle governments report having spent more than $4 billion from 2016 to 2018 to complement U.S. appropriations, funding numerous initiatives, from providing training and credit to small businesses to increasing support for returning emigrants.
Early evidence suggests that the efforts have had some success in addressing the push factors behind migration. But the Trump administration sought to slash and obstruct U.S. funding over the past three fiscal years, and the president’s order to cut off aid would end the programs before they could show real results.
What would make more Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans want to stay home? The necessary changes would be enormous. According to the World Bank, income per capita is just $4,600 in Honduras, and $7,500 to $8,000 in El Salvador and Guatemala. The poverty rate is nearly 30 percent in El Salvador, and about 60 percent in Guatemala and Honduras. Tax revenues are low, so governments don’t have the funding needed for adequate public services. Only a minority of young people complete high school. Inadequate infrastructure and low skill levels inhibit economic growth. A severe drought has ruined many farmers, and malnutrition is common, especially in Guatemala.
Crime is endemic. Levels of violence are among the world’s highest outside of war zones, mostly due to drug-trafficking organizations, street gangs, police, and vigilantism. Large and small businesses lose substantial sums to gang extortion. On surveys, a fourth of households report having been victims of crime in the previous year.
Even the best-governed countries, with the most committed leaders, would find such severe problems daunting. Tragically, the Northern Triangle governments are short on will and capacity to act. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 ranks Guatemala and Honduras in the top third of the most corrupt countries in which to do business. Only El Salvador has shown improvement, and it still falls in the top half. All three countries have recently seen high-ranking government officials, including former and sitting presidents, implicated or indicted in major corruption scandals or drug trafficking. Valiant efforts by some officials and organizations to enforce accountability have met with some success but even greater resistance. Trump’s order to end aid undermines the very reformers that could make a difference.