By Chris McGreal
They urged the Obama administration to do more to address the destabilisation caused by cartels shipping narcotics to the American market, and to invest in more rapid economic development to relieve widespread poverty.
Barack Obama (third left) speaks as Otto Perez Molina (second left) of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez (right) of Honduras, and Salvador Sanchez Ceren (left) of El Salvador listen in the Cabinet Room, 25 July 2014. Photograph: Rex
Three Central American leaders met President Obama on Friday to tell him that billions of dollars poured into attempting to prevent migrant children crossing the US border would be better spent addressing the root causes of the crisis in their countries.
The presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador urged the US administration to do more to combat the armed gangs and drug cartels responsible for the violence driving emigration that has seen more than 57,000 unaccompanied children from their countries arrive at the Texas border in recent months. The three leaders – Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador – urged the Obama administration to do more to address the destabilisation caused by cartels shipping narcotics to the American market, and to invest in more rapid economic development to relieve widespread poverty.
But in comments after the meeting, Obama stuck to Washington’s emphasis on a campaign to discourage what the White House called “irregular migration” with publicity campaigns and the pursuit of people smugglers.
“I emphasised that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children,” he said. “But I also emphasised to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.”
The White House put the emphasis of the meeting on how the US and Central American “governments are cooperating to disrupt smuggling organisations and promote safe, legal, and orderly migration”.
“We will also enforce US immigration laws and the most effective way to deter the use of these dangerous human smuggling routes is to repatriate those who have crossed the border recently and have no relief from removal,” it said in a statement.
The president played down reports of an experimental plan to allow people to apply for asylum in the US from their homes in Honduras, saying they were “a little over-cranked”. Obama said that refugee status is granted under US law on limited grounds and they do not include economic plight. But he said there may be “some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for”.
“If that were the case it would be better for them to apply in-country rather than take a very dangerous journey up to Texas to make those same claims,” he said. “But I think it’s important to recognise that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants.”
The Central American presidents also met US Congressional leaders on Thursday but got little satisfaction in their appeals for more financial assistance. Republicans were divided over Obama’s request for $3.7bn in emergency funding to address the crisis on the Texas border with some prepared to consider only a fraction of the request while others are seeking to tie approval to greater curbs on immigration including overturning the president’s 2012 order halting deportation of undocumented aliens of people brought to the US in their youth who have made their lives in the country.
Before the meeting with Obama, the president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, said the US is wasting money on trying to keep desperate people from crossing the border and that it should instead invest it “to attack the root of the problem” behind the surge in children arriving in Texas. He said economic prosperity in Central America would remove the need for the US to spend additional money protecting the border.
“The United States is spending about $20 billion on border security and other border crossings where they process children and where they treat them and all those other processes,” he told the Washington Post. “We say that with just 10% of that money that you’re investing on the US border, it could be spent at minimum in the three countries and I’m confident that it would be much more profitable than investing it on border security or border control with Mexico.”
The Central American leaders said the US shares responsibility for creating the crisis because of the illegal drug trade. The US is the main market for smuggled narcotics and often the source of weapons used by the drug cartels because of lax gun laws in states such as Texas.
The Honduran president described the drug smugglers as part of a “criminal monster” that has one foot in Central America but the other “in the United States under American jurisdiction”.
“Central America is on the very route between those who produce drugs and those who consume drugs massively,” said Hernández. “You’ll see clearly in Honduras that most of the children have come from the most dangerous areas of our country, where drug lords and gangs are at the root of the greatest levels of violence.”
The Honduran president said that the US’s ‘war on drugs’ destabilised Central America by pushing the cartels out of Mexico and Colombia.
“A number of drug lords that have now settled in Central America and that have now linked up with … gangs in an unholy alliance as it were that has generated levels of violence that are unprecedented,” he said: “so what has helped Mexico, what has helped Colombia, alas has created a problem of gigantic proportions for us.”
The Guatemalan president raised the same issue.
“Central America became transit corridors or warehouses for the drugs reaching the United States,” said Pérez Molina. “Between 2003 and 2013 we have seized 50,000 arms; 50,000 arms … which for the most part come from the United States.”
But it was a topic the US administration was keen to avoid. When the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, was asked about the Central American leaders’ views, he responded: “I’m not enough of an expert on Central American politics to give you an assessment of that claim.”
Pérez Molina said the US also bears an historic responsibility for the region because it used Central America as a battle ground with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. His own country suffered more than three decades of civil war after the CIA engineered a military coup against Jacobo Árbenz, the elected president whose land reforms threatened US economic interests.
“Why did Guatemalans have to live an internal armed conflict? Especially when the Cold War was not our problem?” said Pérez Molina. “The hot spots of that Cold War were in Central American countries. We lived 36 years of internal armed conflict between capitalism and communism – in Guatemala we were neither capitalists nor communists, but we lived 36 years in which many died.”
El Salvador was also the scene of a long civil war in which the US backed right wing regimes against Marxist guerrillas. Honduras hosted camps for the US-created Contras to wage war against the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua in the 1980s.