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A Central America expert explains the root causes of the migrant crisis

Young migrant children in Chiapas.
Young migrant children in Chiapas.
Janet Schwartz/AFP
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

As the migration of unaccompanied children, many from Central America, across the US-Mexico border continues, it's worth asking what can be done to address issues in the children's countries of origin that are causing them to come in the first place.

We reached out to Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to find out. She researches citizen security and crime, conflict resolution, and other issues in Latin American countries. She coauthored a recent report on violence in Mexico and Central America, and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on the topic on July 17. Here's what she told us about the state of the migration crisis, Central America's violence problem, and whether the US can do much to help solve it.

Unfamiliar with the issue? Be sure to read Dara Lind's incredible coverage of it for Vox, collected here. Her 14 facts that explain the situation and her cardstack are particularly valuable. See also Amanda Taub's piece on violence in Central America.

Dylan Matthews: For readers who only started to become familiar with Central America's homicide problem through this child migrant crisis, what are the recent developments? How long has this been brewing? Have things gotten worse in recent years, or are we only just starting to pay attention?

Cynthia Arnson: You have to separate homicides from other forms of violence and threatened violence. People have repeated ad nauseum that the Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — are the most violent countries in the world outside of formal combat zones. This is not a crisis that developed overnight. It is something that actually peaked in the '90s, when El Salvador was the most violent country in the world, with a homicide rate of 100 per 100,000. Now Honduras is on top with a figure around 90 or 91 per 100,000.

In some countries, including Guatemala, the homicides rates have started a modest decline, but you can't only look at homicide rates to gauge the levels of violence in society. For example, there was a gang truce in El Salvador that caused homicide rates to go down pretty dramatically, but extortion of people — small business owners, people in the informal economy, in markets, taking buses — has continued or actually increased, and that is a huge problem. People are kidnapped for ransom. People are assaulted. So the problem of violence needs to be understood in terms of the numerous threats to citizen security that include, but are not limited to murders.

Dylan Matthews: So are non-homicide assaults stagnant or actually getting worse?

Cynthia Arnson: The figures are not terribly reliable. People don't trust the police, so many crimes are vastly underreported. Specifically, crimes of extortion, of kidnapping, or other forms of threats are not reported because the explicit threat is that they will kill you or members of your family if you report it to police. The statistics on homicides are sometimes a little better because a body actually shows up and is reported either to the police or to the Institute of Legal Medicine or the morgue and there's a certain body count. But people disappear or people are kidnapped. There is a whole range of very violent crimes that simply never make it into the official statistics.

The other thing in terms of the violence is that even though sometimes national statistics have gone down, the violence is very localized in particular neighborhoods, sometimes even segments of neighborhoods. Their high levels of violence are not reflected in a national average, which may have declined in certain places. The intensity of the violence is specific to certain localities, and those areas tend to be the areas exporting the largest numbers of child migrants.

Dylan Matthews: What's the process by which this is influencing migration patterns? Is there a reason we've seen an uptick recently? Has this just been going on long enough that people are starting to seek out other options?

Cynthia Arnson: It's a trend that has been increasing, but not to the levels that we've seen in this fiscal year. So it's very difficult to separate the various push factors, which include actual violence and fear of violence in one's neighborhood, the lack of economic opportunity, poor levels of education, and also the desire for family members to reunite with parents and parents to reunite with children.

There's some circumstantial evidence that rumors have circulated that all a child needs to do is make it to the US border and they'll be reunited with their parents. It's difficult to come up with anything more than circumstantial as opposed to systematic evidence of why this change has taken place. There also seems to be a mistaken perception that minors will be eligible for deferred action on deportation. There's also circumstantial evidence or at least some indications that human smugglers are deliberately spreading and nourishing this rumor to convince people to pay the quite exorbitant funds that poor people pay in order to be trafficked illegally into the United States. There's undeniably a role of perception, but it's very hard to separate that, or isolate it from the other more longstanding push factors.

Dylan Matthews: Given that, how much would changes in the actual situation in Central America influence migration? There's been a lot of discussion in the US about what to do with migrants once they're here, but less on how to address the root causes of migration in the first place.

Cynthia Arnson: Of the $3.7 billion requested by the administration for dealing with the child migrant crisis, a very small percentage of it, about $295 million, goes to addressing root causes of the violence. I think that ever since the United States, starting with the end of the Bush administration, began to pay more attention to Central America as the drug violence was spilling over from Mexico to Central America, there's been an overemphasis on security and controlling drug trafficking and also just not enough resources overall.

Dylan Matthews: What can the US do that is effective there? The history of US direct involvement in security and anti-drug measures in Latin America is not particularly positive.

Cynthia Arnson: It's very difficult to do without political will and political leadership in Central America; it's not just that US policy has not been as intelligent as it could be. There has oftentimes been a lack of leadership in the region with some very key and important exceptions. So Central American countries themselves need to take a hard look at issues of transparency, issues of corruption, and issues of the rule of law, and show a willingness to really transform. That said, there are some very positive examples of community-based policing, of alliances between civil society, the private sector, and local governments working together to create greater security and greater possibilities for economic activity.

Dylan Matthews: Which of the countries in question do you think are capable of providing that kind of state capacity?

Cynthia Arnson: All governments have elements within them that are interested in making these changes and transforming their countries, and the real challenge is to expand their numbers and help back these institutional reform efforts that will pay off more over the long term. At the same time, there are terrible problems of corruption, of penetration of state institutions by organized crime, and these are not insignificant threats.

Dylan Matthews: Are there best practices for dealing with that particular problem, of state/crime collusion? Do researchers in this area know certain tactics that work to root that out?

Cynthia Arnson: There's been a focus in the US and elsewhere in the region on capturing drug kingpins, but I think a lot of people who have looked at this, given the weakness of institutions, including police and law enforcement, including the judiciary, have said that a better approach is to try to reduce the violence connected with local illegal markets, and focus on providing citizen security to the general population. You can't abandon the attempt to capture major traffickers, but you cannot do that without providing for safer communities and creating greater resilience at the individual and the community level.


Honduran journalist and congressman for the Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE) party Luis Galdamez is taken under arrest accused of having shot a taxi driver in Tegucigalpa on July 16, 2014. Galdamez stated he shot the man in self-defense. (AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA)

Dylan Matthews: How hands-on do you envision an effective US role being? Training police, a direct DEA presence on the ground, or funding programs others carry out?

Cynthia Arnson: No, there should not be a direct presence on the ground, beyond perhaps greater personnel to assist in training. I think the focus has to shift from principally trying to create these vetted cleaned up units to pursue drug trafficking, to creating, from the ground up, vetted units capable of providing security to the civilian population in particular neighborhoods. There has to be a great deal more focus on the long-term transformations, of vocational training, of education that actually fits the existing labor market or that could attract investment. There needs to be a greater channeling of remittances that are sent back from migrants here in the US into productive investments that would create economic opportunity, and not simply subsidize consumption. Those are a few of the things we can do.

Dylan Matthews: How much capacity does the US have at the moment for that kind of thing? Do we have aid programs focused on improving education and the like, and programs to train police, that are ongoing and working and could be expanded? Or do we need to create new infrastructure?

Cynthia Arnson: I wouldn't only focus on the security dimensions. I think the economic opportunity angle and human capital formation are also critical components. Overall, there is a desire to cut US spending, particularly to cut US spending on foreign aid, and we have to take the long-term view and see this as a critical long-term investment that is not going to turn itself around overnight. There is a need to stay the course and keep resources available over a long period of time, and that doesn't always jibe with the very short-term desire to see quick results and have more immediate gratification. These efforts will take time to build.

Dylan Matthews: Is the current approach that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other US government agencies take to the region structurally sound? Do they need to stay the course and maybe get some more funding, or are there reforms that could improve their performance?

Cynthia Arnson: There's definitely a need to scale up. There are a lot of USAID programs that have been very promising, but they tend to be on a small scale and not connected to other things within a particular country or even across national boundaries. There needs to be an effort to multiply those kinds of community-based efforts sometimes by a factor of 10, or 50, or even 100 before they show real traction.

Dylan Matthews: What kinds of programs worked on a small scale? Are there examples worth mentioning?

Cynthia Arnson: One concrete example is in the town of Santa Tecla in El Salvador, but there have been others. There have also been some promising initiatives by the private sector, programs to provide computer training, for example, to kids from poor neighborhoods. Those kinds of things need to be scaled up, but not scaled up so rapidly that the quality control is lost.


Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, who is attempting a public education campaign to help mitigate the migration crisis. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dylan Matthews: What role do you think there is for fighting misinformation? If people are misinformed about US immigration law and that misperception is driving a lot of this, is there much of anything the US can do to make sure people actually know what the law is?

Cynthia Arnson: The US is investing a significant amount of money, about $5 million, for public education and publicity campaigns that will tell families not to send their children, that they will not be permitted entry or residence in the United States, and that the dangers along the journey are too high. That kind of public relations campaign has already gotten underway.

Dylan Matthews: Are you sympathetic to the idea of offering more visas and avenues to stay for people who do get here, given the severity of the humanitarian crisis, and given that dealing with the core issues driving migration is going to take many years of effort?

Cynthia Arnson: I'm definitely sympathetic to the argument that there has to be a legal path to migration, or people will continue to try to come to the US illegally. Family members that have been in the US for years want to reunite with other family members, including children. There are not sufficient visas to allow those people to come. Legally there is no path to citizenship, currently, to deal with anything close to the nearly 11 million people that are estimated to be undocumented in the US. The vast majority of them, over 70 percent, come from Mexico or Northern Triangle countries, and until we are able to fix that — including allowing people to go home and then come back, to recreate the circularity that has characterized earlier immigration systems, particularly with Mexico — it's going to be very difficult to come to some permanent solution to the problem.

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