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Obama's Central American Rescue Plan Will Only Make Life There Worse

John Moore/Getty Images

When Americans began noticing a deluge of unaccompanied migrant children flooding to the U.S.-Mexico border, the immediate U.S. response was a stopgap. Youth were placed in shelters by the thousands, sometimes set up on military bases, which critics likened to detention centers and emergency hurricane shelters. Later, kids were placed with sponsors while their cases were processed.

Now, a longer-term response is taking shape. The Obama administration has recently jumped on board with the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan that touts development and peace for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It promises to address the violence that's forcing children to flee in such Biblical numbers. Vice President Joe Biden's op-ed in the New York Times last week confirmed that President Obama would ask Congress for $1 billion to fund the Alliance For Prosperity, a name that recalls JFK's controversial Alliance for Progress. "Confronting these challenges," Biden wrote, "requires nothing less than systemic change …"

But the essence of what the Alliance for Prosperity promises is that more of the same—more local spending on infrastructure to facilitate foreign investment, more corporate tax breaks and free trade zones and more regulatory harmonization—will allow Central America to pull itself up by its bootstraps. And, yes, that outcome is as unlikely as it sounds.

Driving the public U.S. support for the Alliance for Progress is the ongoing humanitarian crisis of children fleeing their home countries. Between October 2013 and October 2014, 60,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of them were from Honduras, followed by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. These arrivals marked a spike in Central American minors trying to cross the border. (The number of Mexican minors has remained relatively stable; Mexican children are deported without a court hearing and thus not detained for significant lengths of time.)

Many of the youth held in custody by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) were subjected to measures that would be considered objectionable against anyone, convicted adults or otherwise. Accusations against the CPB, in a complaint filed in June on behalf of 100 children by the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups are truly grotesque. They include "denying necessary medical care to children as young as five-months-old, refusing to provide diapers for infants, confiscating and not returning legal documents and personal belongings, making racially charged insults and death threats, and strip searching and shackling children in three-point restraints during transport." The ACLU proceeded to file a class action lawsuit in October challenging the federal government's failure to provide legal representation to the youth.

After reaching a peak in June of 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving to the United States has fallen off from more than 10,000 to a few thousand a month. This owes in large part to Mexico deporting more Central American minors. As fewer Central American kids arrived at the U.S. border, the issue and the plight of these children slid out of view.

Enter the Alliance for Prosperity. In his op-ed, Biden wrote that the Alliance for Prosperity promotes security, good governance and economic growth in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. (The plan was authored this past fall by those countries' presidents.) The security proposal is thin on specifics, but aims to train and equip police, something the United States has been doing in the region for decades. The plan trots out classic promises to increase tax collection and transparency, toward improving government. It describes a renewed effort to invest in education, a sector decimated by austerity programs, including by promising cash to students who stay in school.

But by far the most polished segment of the document details the sweetheart deals the three countries will roll out for international investors. Biden compared the Alliance to a kind of Plan Colombia for Central America. Plan Colombia was a six-year, $9 billion experiment that used anti-drugs policy as a pretext for bettering investment conditions in Colombia, both through militarization and political reforms. In short, this is not a comparison that should necessarily inspire confidence for Central Americans.

In my book Drug War Capitalism, I explore how Plan Colombia was a foreign policy innovation that created a new blueprint for U.S. intervention on behalf of the corporate sector, guised as an anti-drugs initiative. In fact the success of Plan Colombia has little to nothing to do with drugs, but could be measured by examining growing levels of foreign direct investment and investor security. Biden's memory of Plan Colombia confirms my argument. Far from recalling an anti-drugs program, he lauds Plan Colombia such: "The Colombian government cleaned up its courts, vetted its police force and reformed its rules of commerce to open up its economy."

Today's measure of success is distinct from the messaging about Plan Colombia at the time. It is also distinct from what we are told today about the Merida Initiative, the first re-incarnation of Plan Colombia, this time in Mexico. In an interview in 2007, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles explained: "The aim of 'Plan Colombia' was to reduce overall cultivation in the country in the first five years by 50 percent. We've actually reduced it by more than 50 percent." Plan Colombia began in 2000, and ran through to 2006, after which U.S. funding to Colombia began to decrease and shift towards Mexico and the Merida Initiative, beginning in 2008.

The U.S. State Department hawked the Merida Initiative as a way to strengthen courts and improve police odds in their fight against drug traffickers. Instead, those institutions' failures and cruelties have only deepened as U.S. largesse, to the tune of over $2.35 billion, has fostered increased violence across the country. Meanwhile, on the metrics that matter most directly to investors and politicians, the Merida Initiative has been a success: Mexico has passed reforms in finance, education, labor and energy that have cleared the way for foreign investment. But to people living here in Mexico, the Merida Initiative has only exacerbated an already grim daily reality.

Biden's op-ed failed to mention the Merida Initiative, or its current incarnate in Central America, the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). When the Merida Initiative began, part of the funding was destined for Central America. In 2010, the Central America program was separated from the Merida Initiative, and re-packaged as CARSI. But CARSI did little to stem the violence or to reduce the tide of migrants. If anything, it did the opposite. In Honduras and Guatemala, homicide rates climbed steadily as U.S. funding for militarization via CARSI began to flow. Remember that Honduras sent the largest number of kids to the U.S. border, followed by Guatemala. In 2012, two solid years into CARSI, there were 7,172 recorded homicides in Honduras, marking the most violent year in the country's recent history. (That is, a country with 5 percent of the United States's population generated 56 percent as many murders as the United States saw that year.)

Central America has been here before. Many of the features of CARSI and previous U.S. initiatives in Central America are recycled in the Alliance for Prosperity, albeit with a bigger budget and a more explicit focus on improving conditions for foreign investors. "Obviously the neoliberal program was not structured to reduce poverty, or to generate employment, or so that there would be no migrants," Guatemalan researcher Luis Solano wrote in an email interview. "But the public discourse was that of the famous 'trickle down policy,' a trickle down that never arrived except to the handful who benefited."

Far from providing new opportunities for regular people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the measures proposed in the Alliance for Prosperity are likely to worsen the social and economic realities for the region's poor majority. This is likely to lead Central Americans—adults and children alike—to continue to seek out survival by heading north.