Comprehensive strategy needed on Central America

Comprehensive strategy needed on Central America

At this time last year, we saw the mass arrival of unaccompanied children from Central America at the borders of the United States, sent by parents without hope for their future. To avoid a repeat of this tragedy, it is time for American leadership and a multifaceted strategy to address the complex and many root causes that drive this problem.

Through our years of service at the intersection of diplomatic and military command in Central America, we saw first hand the conditions that spark social upheaval, misery, fear and pain. We know these conditions, if untreated, result in disruption across the region, a threat to all nations in the Americas. We also know that men and women of good will and determination on both ends of the migration trail can turn this dynamic around by addressing the stubborn economic, social and legal patterns that undercut development and drove this exodus.


The crisis cannot be ignored — not by governments, businesses, militaries or law enforcement officers, whether in Washington or San Salvador, Los Angeles or Tegucigalpa. Economies have stagnated. Corruption, injustice and violence abound. Countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Economic growth has lagged. Fifty percent of the population lives in poverty. Education is not valued and not available to the vast majority of an ever-increasing youth population. Almost 10 percent of the population in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has decided to leave. There is little to hold them home.

We know that progress is possible. In Plan Colombia, two administrations and Congress committed the United States to combine its security and economic strength to fight the scourge of drug trafficking and political instability in Colombia. Even as the threat of illicit narcotics has adapted and remains a challenge, Colombia has transformed itself from a weak and fragile state to a security and trading partner, providing training and assistance to other countries in the region.

We have seen that the security and prosperity of our neighbors in the hemisphere affects us directly, but we have under-invested in the region, which received only 1.3 percent of all American foreign assistance in 2013. In the past, temporary increases have come in response to natural disasters, such as the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala and Hurricane Mitch that struck Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998. The fact is we have not sustained our attention.

The United States has a critical leadership role to play, but it must also be accompanied by political leadership from Central American governments and business leaders to provide broad-based economic growth and personal safety for their citizens. They must take the leading role in embracing accountability, transparency and sustainability — the foundation of growth and social order. Equally important, these leaders need the support of the United States and the international community as they take on these difficult challenges.

Fortunately, we are seeing signs of such leadership with the recent meeting of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Vice President Biden in Guatemala City to accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America. The joint high-level dialogues on security issues, social issues and trade and investment, engaging civil society and the private sector, offer a promising step forward.

Many of the proposals are built around promoting economic opportunity not through charity but through public-private partnerships with U.S. agencies, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, that can leverage additional resources and create sustainable economic growth. We can look at lessons learned here in the United States on community policing reforms and technical assistance to law enforcement. Our civilians, our diplomats and development experts at the State Department and USAID are among our best resources, with the support, as necessary, of our military and law enforcement.

From our vantage point, we need to step up, not step back, in our support for Central America, where their leaders are committed to working with us, using all the tools of statecraft, diplomacy, development and security to fight the economic, legal, political and even cultural challenges to reform. Only then will we see the stability and prosperity that all of us so eagerly seek.

Craddock served as commander of U.S. Southern Command from 2004 to 2006, overseeing U.S. military engagement with the Western Hemisphere, and was NATO supreme allied commander for Europe from 2006 to 2009. Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Honduras, and was deputy secretary of State from 2007 to 2009.