Deporting Mayhem to Central America

Eighty percent of the cocaine in the U.S. passes through Central America. Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

To secure U.S. borders and win Republican support for immigration reform, President Barack Obama stepped up deportations of unauthorized immigrants, especially those with criminal records. Whether the border is now more "secure" is debatable. Certainly Republicans haven't been persuaded.

Yet for the nations of Central America, these policies have been a disaster. An influx of displaced deportees has fed crime and violence that were already out of control -- spurring more El Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans to seek safety in the U.S., and leading to more asylum requests and deportations.

The U.S. government has a strong interest in stopping this perpetual mayhem machine. Central America's instability and weakness have helped make it a transshipment point for 80 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Central American migrants to the U.S. rose by more than 50 percent; after Mexico, the three leading source countries of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. are El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Even more alarming, the number of U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied children from these three countries quintupled from 2010 to 2012.

What did the U.S. expect when it dumped more criminals into countries notorious for their high homicide rates, thriving made-in-the-U.S.A. gang networks, and weak judiciaries and police? With the overwhelming majority of homicides going unpunished in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- as high as 95 percent -- it's no wonder that the number of Central Americans filing U.S. asylum claims based on "fear of return" more than doubled from 2012 to 2013.

The U.S. doesn't need to go all Emma Lazarus on the MS-13 and 18th Street gang members to interrupt this dynamic. Allowing these criminals to stay in U.S. cities and prisons is dangerous and expensive. But if Congress and the Obama administration are going to continue to deport more criminals, they could be doing some things to make the U.S. and Central America safer.

Start by providing security assistance that's more equal to the problem: Instead of cutting funding for the Central American Regional Security Initiative by 20 percent to $130 million this year, they should be raising it and speeding up its delivery. Never mind the immorality of the U.S. outsourcing the drug war to those least capable of prosecuting it, or even the U.S. culpability in incubating Central America's gangs. Day to day, the region's lawlessness and violence affect more Americans than does, say, Afghanistan, where the U.S. is spending billions each year.

The U.S. also needs to shift more of its funding from helping with drug interdiction and beefing up Central American militaries and police to building up judicial and community institutions. To help Central American authorities cope with more deportees -- some of them gang members with weak ties to their land of birth -- the U.S. ought to provide more advance warning and better information on their criminal records.

Central American nations must also face up to their failure to protect their own citizens. In 2010, for instance, Guatemala had 19,900 police for its 12.7 million citizens -- but 120,000 private guards for those who could afford them. The region's anemic tax revenue is a big part of the problem; instead of fighting efforts to raise taxes to finance security and education, business leaders should focus more on the costs they pay for crime and violence -- as much as 7.5 percent of its gross domestic product on average, as the World Bank has pointed out.

Thankfully, Obama recently said his administration would re-examine U.S. deportation procedures. No nation, acting alone or with its neighbors, can hope to eliminate unauthorized traffic across its borders, whether of guns, drugs or people. But in seeking to manage them, as countries must, they would be wise to honor the principle of first do no harm -- to others and to themselves.

--Editors: James Gibney, Katy Roberts

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at