Closer to Home: Why Latin America Needs More Attention

By Aroop Mukharji

Is the United States neglecting its neighborhood?

According to the United Nations and the World Bank, the Western Hemisphere is the most dangerous region in the world, as measured by homicide rates. Of the top ten most dangerous countries, seven are in the Western Hemisphere. Of the top 20, 16 are in the Western Hemisphere. Of the top 50, 31 are. El Salvador led 2018 with 52 homicides per 100,000 people. As a comparison, Denmark, which has a similar-sized population as El Salvador, posted just one homicide per 100,000 in 2018.

Most of the countries clustered at the top of the homicide charts are very small Latin American and Caribbean nations. But a good number are not that small, like Mexico. What’s more, these are not foreign problems. If the U.S. Virgin Islands were considered their own country, they would be number two on the list. Puerto Rico would be 19; it suffers over twice as many annual homicides per capita as Iraq does.

Homicide rates are not the only way of judging a country’s security. Notably, homicide rates exclude deaths from war, so focusing solely on that measure misses places like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan, and we don’t have data on some countries with presumably high rates, including Libya and Somalia. Nonetheless, homicide rates are an important indicator of security. High rates reveal the weakness of the state in providing security for its citizens.

Weak states are not self-contained problems. When there isn’t a strong (or independent) central authority, non-state groups like gangs and cartels can challenge the power of the state and undermine the rule of law. In Central America, the problem self-perpetuates (and exacerbates) when those groups grow through extortion and trafficking weapons, drugs, and humans.

The United States witnesses a number of security concerns that result from a perimeter of weak states. Arms, human, and drug trafficking all affect life in the United States—90 percent of American cocaine, for instance, flows through Central American cartels. Gang networks, furthermore, cross national boundaries. The same gangs in El Salvador also operate in the United States.

Security concerns lead to massive migration flows and humanitarian crises. Over the last decade, nearly 2 million nationals from just three countries in Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) were apprehended by U.S. authorities at the border. That is an astounding number of people who make a treacherous journey. But to those asylum seekers, it is that journey or death.

Porous borders and human trafficking are themselves major concerns. Amidst a global pandemic, they become even more acute problems.

It is in the short-, medium-, and long-term security interest of the United States to live in a peaceful and prosperous region. As the progenitor of some of the historically imbalanced trade deals with the region (not to mention political crises from weapons trafficking and coups), the United States has a moral interest as well to help its neighbors.

The United States has made some recent attempts to improve the situation. During the George W. Bush presidency, for instance, the United States struck a free trade deal with Central American countries. The result, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), went into effect during Bush’s second term. Additionally, during the administration of President Barack H. Obama, the United States committed a few billion dollars in aid through the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America. This initiative continued, albeit in a diminished form, in the administration of Donald J. Trump.

The issue is that these initiatives were insufficient and have not worked. It is unclear if any of the countries in CAFTA-DR have seen better GDP growth than they would have witnessed absent the trade deal (see Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua). And the region-wide homicide rates, as noted above, remain terrifying.

An irony of U.S. foreign policy is that today the United States has over 700 military components abroad. It is still mired in wars in the Middle East, and the vast majority of its strategic attention centers on China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Neither Trump nor Obama gave much indication that Latin America was a very high security priority.

Why is it that the United States is so involved in the globe, when its own hemisphere is rife with security issues?

One obvious answer is that countries like El Salvador do not have nuclear bombs. China, Russia, and North Korea have attained the ability to wipe out U.S. cities. If Iran gets the bomb, it could wipe out American friends and allies. Other reasons might be that China is one of the United States’ largest trading partners, and all four countries have waged disinformation and cyber campaigns against the United States, tested U.S. alliances, and challenged U.S. influence in global fora.

The question is not necessarily whether the United States should spend more time thinking about China or Russia than El Salvador or Honduras. Rather, it is whether the United States has spent sufficient time and energy thinking about policy toward its own region.

New security strategies for China seem to be churned out daily by Washington think tanks, but what about policy toward the area closest to home? Latin American policy is in desperate need of creative strategic re-thinking. The last few administrations followed a similar policy (of varying degrees) of aid and free trade toward Latin America and the Caribbean. There was compelling logic behind that approach, but it has not delivered.

It’s time we try something new. The incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to do it. And, in a sense, given China’s recent economic campaign in Latin America, deciding between regions might be a false choice.

Aroop Mukharji is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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