Just South of Us


Evan Choe, Staff Writer 

When people think of North America, most picture three nations only- the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In truth, there are 23 countries that make up the continent of North America, most of which are located along the Central American isthmus and island nations along the Caribbean. Many of these countries are stricken by poverty, innumerable homicide cases, and unstable governments. The problem is that these nations have not been historically receiving the international attention and aid they need due to their presence being overshadowed by the giant that is the United States. American aid programs to these countries have seen a steady rise in success at lowering homicide and poverty rates among other statistics, but more attention needs to be garnered. These countries are not just battlegrounds for the fight against human rights abuses; these issues are directly correlated with the skyrocketing migrant rates at the southern border of the US. Thus, if the United States wants to truly seek a permanent solution to its immigration issues at the southern border, a wall will not work; an extension of American freedom and equitability will. 

Taking a look beyond the southern border of the United States, the World Population Review indicates that 20 of 41 of the world’s worst homicide rates are located in North American countries and territories, spanning nearly every country in Central America and the Caribbean. El Salvador, the only Central American country to not border the Caribbean, has the highest global homicide rate at 83 homicides per 100,000 citizens. Despite the country’s vibrant culture and extravagant landscapes, its instability has driven many of its former citizens to the border between Mexico and the United States. The country is currently operating under the presidency of Nayib Bukele, who has recently taken office and has been described as an authoritarian whose actions have been lackluster in handling the nation’s endemic violence. Under the political regimes of El Salvador and many other Central American nations, gangs are able to exert control over urban territories and kill with impunity. Governments even go so far as to collaborate with these gangs and carry out extrajudicial executions, as illustrated by the Human Rights Watch- a non-governmental organization focused on exposing and publicizing human right infringements in over ninety countries. The El Salvadorian president once threatened the legislative house by calling in troops in order to pass bills under his support. And this kind of power abuse is not just seen in El Salvador. Taking a look at Honduras, the president has been under investigation by United States authorities for participating in drug trafficking and money laundering. Similar issues can be found in many other nations – Guatemala, Nicaragua, and more. Such rampant abuse of political power is indicative of a complete lack of governmental checks and balances in many Central American states, making it difficult for the United States’ humanitarian efforts to alleviate the situation in many of these regions. 

Much of the reasoning and historical context for these problems lies in the ever persistent and devastatingly harmful drug and human trafficking trade. It is important to remember that many regions of South America have it even worse, and is often considered to be the root of many of the illegal narcotics and drugs flowing through Central America. Gangs that originated from the favelas and slums of Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil have inspired many of the current gangs seen in Central American countries. One Brazilian journalist, Tim Lopes, who was investigating child trafficking in the Rio de Janeiro favelas in 2002, was captured and underwent indescribable torture for simply speaking out against gang practices of human trafficking. Ironically, he was lured into a group of gang members by an indoctrinated child who was being illegally used as a lookout. His death symbolizes the seeming impenetrability of the drug and human trafficking trade in Central and South America and is a reason why so many fear getting involved, and are actively seeking refuge in the United States. In the meantime, because of the persistence of this trafficking trade, Central American countries have been abused as the middleman between the United States, Latin America, local gangs, and uncooperative and corrupt political regimes, pushing migrants into the United States along with it. It is terrible to imagine these migrants moving across the border in long, arduous journeys, treated like commodities on their way to some black market, all because the very product that drove them out of their homes in the first place: drugs. 

Depicted is a family crossing the southern border of the United States, photographed by Mario Tama

Despite the seemingly overwhelming barriers, the United States has actually seen a surprisingly positive effect on these nations through its various humanitarian programs. For example, increased funding of humanitarian programs in Central America led to the lowest rate of illegal immigrant detention since 1971, as told by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. To further illustrate this, U.S. assistance led to a whopping 42% drop in homicide rates in El Salvador, which undoubtedly had a direct correlation with the decreased rate of illegal immigration. Within the direct radius of neighborhoods in which US programs were based, homicide rates declined by up to 66% in El Salvador and 78% in Honduras. It is nearly impossible to imagine such a decline in violence without the presence of American aid, further illustrating how the greatest method for solving the immigration crisis at the southern border lies in extending a helping hand rather than building physical barriers. By alleviating the everyday fear of personal and family safety in these countries, the United States is building a better future for individuals in their own respective nations, eliminating the motivation for large scale migration to the United States. American aid programs have not just made progress in minimizing homicide rates, but they have also been fighting against corruption and for economic growth. In some of the most migrant-based sectors of Guatemala, where thousands of farmers flock from their poor standard of living to the United States, relief and aid efforts have helped increase rural farmer sales by nearly 50% and fostered the creation of 20,000 more job opportunities in this specific region alone. As for corruption, United States anti-corruption efforts have fought for equitable rights in these nations, and its results manifested in the freeing of 89,000 people from extreme poverty and thus extreme journeys to the American border. 

Sadly, due to the political landscape of the United States in the past several years, Central American aid efforts were frozen at an amount of nearly $450 million, as highlighted by NPR. This was a massive blow to an already underfunded aid effort in the Americas by the United States. While it is projected to take over $20 billion to construct the border wall, politicians somehow decided that $450 million was too much to help save lives? In regards to the wall, there is no evidence to prove that it would have a positive effect on stopping illegal immigration or whether it would be worth the investment. 

However, it is clear that relief efforts in Central America are proven to be effective, ethically aligned with the ideals of the United States, and much more fiscally responsible. Horrific human rights issues are still raging on the very soil of the continent on which we plant the flag of stars and stripes, and it would be criminal for us to turn our backs against them and deny them the freedoms and ideals we take for granted. From indentured servitude in Haiti under the restavek system to favela turf wars in Rio, from daily homicides in El Salvador to children being treated like tradable goods in Colombia, the fight is far from over. This is not a Central American issue; this is not even an American issue. It is a human issue and should be treated as such. Perhaps our weak southern border can become our strongest link of friendship and cooperation in the coming years if we simply use our abundant resources and willing minds to lift others up alongside us rather than to construct barriers and shun our neighbors. And maybe if we extend a helping hand to these neighbors of ours, they may no longer flock to us for help and for aid but flock to us to help and to aid.