Why a Marshall Plan for Central America will fuel more violence

Why a Marshall Plan for Central America will fuel more violence
© Getty Images

In case you missed it, Julian CastroJulian CastroJulian Castro announces relaunch of 'Adios Trump!' shirts to raise money for young immigrants Sanders says Democrats should have given more speaking time to progressives Castro says DNC should have put more Latino speakers on stage from beginning MORE reiterated his call for a Marshall Plan for Central America during the last Democratic debate. According to Castro, a massive surge in foreign assistance to countries in Central America, such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, will help stem the flow of migrants to the southern border by improving local security and economic conditions. The plan will allow people β€œto build a life in their communities rather than make a dangerous journey leaving their homes.” In effect, the policy contends that bankrolling regional stability is the best way for us to end mass migration from these countries.

Similar proposals have been criticized by experts for being xenophobic. They contribute to an immigration narrative that downplays the many ways that immigrants can benefit the United States. A similar program is already being partially implemented by the Trump administration. The plan for a regional aid program on the scale of the original Marshall Plan, which is equivalent to around $100 billion today, is fiscally unimaginable. More importantly, a rapid influx of foreign assistance from the United States to Central America is likely to cause more violence than it stops.

While the media focuses on the widespread violence caused by gangs, the governments of Central America are also responsible for a significant amount of the violence driving individuals from their homes. My research on the political impact of decades of foreign assistance to developing countries finds that economic aid, the current focal point of plans to reduce violence in Central America, is associated with increased levels of violence by state actors. Governments are able to channel foreign assistance into building their police, militaries, and other coercive institutions regardless of the intended purpose of the policy. This means that pumping economic aid into countries that are already among the most violent in the world is likely to only make matters worse.


This is true in El Salvador, where state security forces have been accused of indiscriminately killing young men. My research on El Salvador shows how foreign assistance sent from the United States was integral to the continuation of the brutal civil war, not only by providing military support to the ruling junta, but also by staving off economic collapse. Without the resources the United States provided, the government of El Salvador would have had to redirect resources from the war effort towards its actual responsibilities to the people of El Salvador, such as rebuilding damaged infrastructure and ensuring that crops make it to market.

If the United States wants to lower levels of violence in the countries of Central America to make them safer for their citizens, the key is to starve violent actors of resources instead of handing them more. From Syria to Ethiopia, the historical record shows that both state and nonstate actors are able to divert humanitarian and economic aid for their own ends. Foreign assistance unfortunately becomes another resource to fight over, as recent efforts to distribute aid in Venezuela have laid bare.

Control over resources is key to undermining violence. Although Castro proposes targeting illicit networks and criminal organizations, he has openly criticized the Central America Regional Security Initiative for its focus on combating gangs and drug trafficking. However, without such coordinated efforts, the violence prevention programs that Castro wants the United States to fund will not have the physical security they need in order to succeed. There is an epidemic of violence in Central America. Throwing more money at the problem will not make it go away.

Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor of international affairs at the American University School of International Service and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her on Twitter @TriskoDarden.