This is precisely the wrong time to cut and run from Central America

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President Trump’s announcement last week to cut U.S. assistance to Central America will certainly bring immediate results. But the effect is far from what we all should want.

Putting the brakes on funding to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras risks reversing the good work of U.S. investments. This will result in more instability, which will leave Central Americans with no other option but to head north.   

{mosads}It’s not news that Central America’s Northern Triangle continues to face security and economic challenges. What is news is that improvements have been made since 2015 when, following an unprecedented surge in unaccompanied minors the year before, the United States doubled down on a comprehensive solution to the long-faced problems in the region.

It was never going to be easy. El Salvador and Guatemala only signed peace accords in the 1990s to end civil wars, and Honduras, while not a victim of civil war, saw its territory used as a training ground in the 1980s for neighboring conflicts.

With this history, and the violence that it continues to inject into these societies today, a real fix means years of work. That has come about through various U.S. security-focused programs, but the real answer — a comprehensive solution — is still new, albeit with positive results so far. 

There’s a long way to go, but citizen security in the Northern Triangle has improved over the past few years with the help of U.S. assistance.

The homicide rate in the three countries was down by 23 percent in 2017 from the year before. In El Salvador, the homicide rate in 2018 was half of what it was in 2015. U.S. foreign assistance has helped reduce the killings, particularly through community-based interventions. 

The work is not close to being finished, making it all the more important that we do not cut and run. Doing so would not only spark more migration, but it would create new conditions for lawlessness and new fertile ground for criminal groups — MS-13 among them — in these countries.

A more insecure and unsafe Northern Triangle translates into a more insecure and unsafe home for us. Comparatively, the money being spent is a drop in the bucket. Our aid packages and technical assistance costs just 0.035 percent of the federal budget and is shrinking.

In fact, rather than cutting assistance, we should be increasing it; U.S. assistance to the region is down 20 percent in the past two years. 

No one wins if the U.S. reneges on commitments when our work is achieving real results and the cost is miniscule. Our allies in the Northern Triangle are still — even after progress — coping with a homicide rate twice the average across Latin America.

Without continued U.S. assistance to these local programs, El Salvador’s gains in security will be stalled — or reversed. Adding to these concerns, without continued assistance, the U.S. partnership vacuum is eagerly filled by China.

U.S. assistance is readily felt by some of the vulnerable youth who are prime targets of gang recruitment. For example, in a span of four years (2013-2017), programming in Guatemala resulted in more than 78,000 new jobs.

In El Salvador, over 20,000 jobs were created. In Honduras, in just six months, over 200 young men and women found internship opportunities at home because of U.S.-supported programs.

If we cut aid, we fertilize the ground for gang recruitment. The only effective way to curtail long-term unauthorized migration is by fixing the problem at its source: by reducing violence and incentivizing economic development in the countries

Assistance to the Northern Triangle is not charity. The goal is not to provide assistance — to complement spending by the countries themselves — in order to feel good about ourselves. We provide assistance in furtherance of American security, economic and geopolitical interests.

{mossecondads}Foreign aid is not a one-way street; it secures alliances. We work together on many issues critically important to American lives. By working together, the Northern Triangle countries and the United States arrested, in 2017 alone, more than 3,800 individuals, many with gang affiliations.

The State Department has invested at least $48 million to train the police in all three countries and opened a special training academy in El Salvador. From 2014 to 2017, over 850 Salvadoran officers have received FBI training to help take down MS-13.

Central America is at crossroads. Enormous progress has been made since the United States doubled down on a comprehensive strategy to address the chronic violence, corruption and insecurity in the region — all root causes of migration.

Winning security in the Northern Triangle takes sustained effort, cooperation, patience and a small amount of foreign aid. To cut and run harms U.S. security and prosperity.

Jason Marczak is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. He is on Twitter at @JMarczak. Maria Fernanda Perez Arguello is an associate director with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter: @mfperezcr.

Tags Americas Central American migrant caravan Crime in Guatemala Crime in Honduras Donald Trump El Salvador Gangs Honduras Latin America MS-13 Northern Triangle of Central America

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