Vice President-Elect Pence should take on the 'Plan Colombia for the Northern Triangle'
In the summer of 2014, 70,000 unaccompanied minors (UACs) from the Northern Triangle – consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, forcing U.S. action and involvement in a region that is often overlooked. Many called on a “Plan Colombia” for that region so as to deal with the “push factors” or “root causes” of this immigration. In that spirit, the Obama Administration, with the leadership of Vice President Joe Biden, convened the three presidents of the region and set a series goals to confront the region’s problems with gangs, poverty, citizen security, governance, corruption, slow growth, and unmet social needs.The three presidents were convened and advised by the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, and had quiet support from General John Kelly, then Commander of Southern Command. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence should strongly consider stepping into Vice President Biden’s shoes and continuing to help and work with the countries of the Northern Triangle so that they get their houses in order during the next administration. It is in the American interest to see these countries be safer and more prosperous. Relatively small amounts of money from us in these countries can go a long way in making these countries more livable and this helps keep folks from trying to immigrate to the United States.
Like the Northern Triangle, Colombia was once on the border of becoming a failed state with drug lords and guerilla groups taking large swaths of territory and corrupting all levels of government. Colombia’s miraculous turnaround in less than 20 years is admired around the world, and many countries seek to emulate Colombia’s success. A series of leaders starting with President Pastrana, President Uribe, and President Santos carried out a series of military, judicial, political, and economic policies which turned the country around. The United States played an important supporting role starting with President Clinton and followed by Presidents Bush and Obama. Plan Colombia has been one of the longest sustained engagements by the United States with any country. But Colombia’s success was largely a result of the commitment of Colombia’s people, the efforts of its military, and the sustained commitment of the Colombian political leadership.
In the Northern Triangle, the political leadership in the region is demonstrating some effort to make reform in security and the economy but they are going to need to do more and they are going to need to some encouragement from their partners in the US. This is where Vice President-elect Pence should continue the role of Vice President Biden. The United States Congress has also played an important role in getting these countries on the right track. With strong bipartisan support, there was an agreement to increase military and economic assistance to the region based on the commitments of the three presidents. The U.S. Congress allocated $750 million for the Northern Triangle in 2016 and has sought metrics for improvement on a number of fronts in exchange for this money, and while foreign aid alone will not drive economic growth nor will it alone improve security in the region, our continued support and involvement helps push these countries to change.
In early December, at CSIS we launched a report on the situation in the Northern Triangle, which focused on the “push factors” that lead to the UAC crisis and described what the United States and other international donors might do to help reduce these push factors. The United States has had a distracted relationship with the region for many decades, only focusing on Central America when there has been a crisis. It is not a surprise to long-time observers that civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, gang violence, poverty, and low formal-sector employment contribute to the “push” factors of immigration from the region.
The Northern Triangle has a very young population with approximately 50 percent of the region’s population under 24 years old. With this massive youth population, the region needs to create jobs in the formal sector as a viable alternative to joining gangs or deciding to leave for the United States.
Violence in the Northern Triangle is the foundation of many of the region’s challenges. Gang violence, in particular, has plagued the region for decades. In 2015, over 17,000 people in the Northern Triangle were killed, making the region the most violent on the planet outside of active warzones. Children as young as 15 are recruited into gangs such as the dangerous MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs. With over 70,000 active gang members in El Salvador alone, the prevalence of gang membership and the lack of other opportunities contribute to the high rates of violence and low formal employment.
The part of the economy that is in the informal sector in Central America is very high, and the Northern Triangle countries all experience between 65 and 75 percent informal employment. “Informality” means these companies do not pay taxes, do not follow labor laws, and do not follow any environmental rules. It should be in the interest of all policy makers and those assisting these countries to make it as easy as possible to participate in the formal economy. Many employers do not want to participate in the formal economy because they are skeptical that their tax dollars will be put to good use and instead will be stolen or contribute to government corruption. The governments in the region have to reset the social contract between the government and citizens and have to demonstrate that tax dollars will actually contribute to social goods and services including infrastructure, police, education, and other basic functions of government. At present, tax collection rates in the region are among the lowest in the world. USAID programs to broaden the tax base in El Salvador have seen some success, but there is still more work to be done.
Similar to the U.S. commitment to Plan Colombia, the United States is going to have to make a decade-long commitment to the Northern Triangle. When Plan Colombia was started it was unclear it was going to be a success. It is in the US interest to see these countries succeed. These countries are in a relatively better place than after the civil wars and they can return to a good path with our help. There are reasons to be optimistic if we provide a bit more focus and attention. However, our commitment is going to have to last at least another 10 years just like Plan Colombia; Vice President Joe Biden invested a significant amount of effort in helping the region and his efforts paid off in terms of increased U.S. support that is just coming on line now and recent difficult political steps taken by the three presidents in the region. It was important to have someone as senior as Vice President Biden focus on this challenge and further the gains made in the Obama Administration. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence should take on this important task. The U.S. government can either help change the facts on the ground in the Northern Triangle or these problems will continue to find their way to our doorstep.