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  • Alyse DiNapoli

US Aid to Central America’s in Flux, But Deeper Issues of Accountability Remain

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

The Trump administration’s decision to hold off on a previous request to freeze foreign aid to Central America has been met with a sigh of relief, as much of the funding is earmarked for economic development and humanitarian programs. But although the original proposal faced nearly unanimous opposition by both Congress and administration officials, the accountability surrounding foreign aid- security funds in particular- still faces its fair share of criticism.

The percentage of aid allocated for security assistance- funding that trains and equips military and police forces- constitutes an increasingly larger share of spending. According to data from the Security Assistance Monitor, in 2010, about $457 million was spent on economic aid in the region, with an additional $108 million spent on security. In 2019, $184 million in economic aid was allocated with an additional $266 million going towards security.

“The chunk of security assistance that [the Defense Department] funds and implements has been increasing in the last 10 years. There is definitely a lot more going through the Department of Defense as opposed to the State Department, so we are seeing a lot more of a militarized approach across the board in regards to aid,” said Christina Arabia, Director of Security Assistance Monitor, in regards to the global trend of foreign aid.

Even though funding for some State Department programs has increased, the amount allocated to the agency overall has been on a downward trend over the last few years.

“But that doesn’t mean security aid is going down. It’s just leaving the State programs and going through more Defense programs,” she mentioned.

Security aid is meant to train a recipient country’s military and law enforcement, and while the US provides these funds to countries all over the world, the assistance provided to Latin American countries-such as the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras- is often provided within the context of combating the drug war and gang violence. But a highly militarized law enforcement has not necessarily led to peace and prosperity.

“There’s a big concern about the role of military and policing in Central America. ..that’s not going in the right direction in most of these countries, and that’s a serious issue,” according to Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group.

Much of the US security aid is part of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which broke off from the Mérida Initiative, a 2008 agreement largely between the US and Mexico to stem the production and flow of illegal drugs. Mérida in turn was partially modeled off of Plan Colombia, the 2000 aid package that helped the Colombian government fight FARC troops and drug-trafficking cartels. While often touted by leaders as successful, many activists and civilian groups claim that the steady flow of weapons and training from the US to corrupt Colombian leaders and military personnel led to heightened violence and human rights violations. This included the notorious “false positives”, in which Colombian soldiers were rewarded for capturing and killing FARC guerrillas, thereby incentivizing a system in which innocent civilians were incorrectly labelled as rebels and subsequently murdered. The killings are estimated to have taken over 3,000 civilian lives, with the bulk occurring between 2002 and 2008.

Largely inspired by Colombia’s violence, Leahy’s Law was enacted in the late 1990s, which prohibits the US from providing security aid to military units that have documented cases of human rights abuses. Certain Colombian units faced cuts in funding until they demonstrated internal improvements, and the law has also been used in some cases in Honduras and Guatemala as well. But because it targets particular military units, it’s usually difficult to apply.

“It really gets enforced when there's a lot of pressure and enough specific information about assistance going to specific units. So you can have pretty serious human rights violations going on, and that might mean some specific unit gets held up but not many other units that are involved in human rights violations,” Haugaard said.

This approach also makes it difficult to address systemic corruption that often precedes these crimes. Many believe that narcotrafficking and politics are so intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. The brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been indicted on drug trafficking charges, and recent court documents allege that the President himself also received drug money to fund his campaign. Two years ago, the son of former president Porfirio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison for conspiring to import cocaine into the US. And the Northern Triangle countries have consistently ranked towards the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index rankings.

But the issue with corruption is not just politicians wanting to get a cut of the lucrative, albeit illegal, trade. The Honduran government has also been involved in numerous human rights abuses. A UN Human Rights report confirmed that, during the controversial 2017 presidential election, the country’s military police used excessive force in attempting to quell protests, which led to the death of 22 civilians. Yet, while the amount of US economic aid to the country has increased over the past 10 years, the percentage of aid going towards security assistance increased from approximately 9% in 2010 to 28% in 2017.

In addition, collusion between corporations and state security forces in displacing or intimidating indigenous populations and activists remains commonplace. The 2016 murder of the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cárceres made international headlines, especially when it was revealed that executives and employees of the mining company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) collaborated with public security officials to assassinate Cárceres and intimidate the indigenous group fighting to protect the lands from corporate control. But according to Haugaard, the activist’s fate is unfortunately not so unique.

“It’s a huge problem in Honduras and Guatemala. There’s a real mix of security forces and companies that want to use natural resources often without consulting the communities in which resource extraction is taking place,” she said.

“There are constant death threats against communities who are defending their right to not have a dam or a mining project in their communities, and there is often involvement of official security forces or the local mayor.”

However, in addition to Leahy’s Law, each agency, such as the State Department and Department of Defense, put into place a list of conditions that Central American governments must adhere to. Aid conditions worked in certain circumstances-such as the funding freeze in response to Colombia’s extrajudicial killings- but because the rules are quite vague, it typically requires immense pressure from outside organizations or other agencies in order to hold back the funds. The State Department, for example, faced backlash when they certified that Honduras had met the necessary standards in 2017, the same year that the military police were found to have been responsible for the civilian deaths during election protests.

Members of Congress and oversight committees also add an extra layer of accountability when the State and Defense Departments fall short, but their rhetoric is oftentimes more symbolic than substantive, according to Arabia.

“Occasionally you’ll see a member of Congress who will put something in the appropriations bill that specifically conditions aid to one country or to one unit or one program, but it’s not consistent...So it can be more of a political statement or a slap on the wrist more so than actually holding someone accountable,” she said.

But some members have made a point to be more vocal about the issue. California representative Norma Torres slammed the State Department in April after they provided Congress with a vague and incomplete list of corrupt government officials in the Northern Triangle. And in honor of the slain activist Cáceres, Georgia representative Hank Johnson re-introduced a bill in March that would suspend military aid to Honduras until the government makes serious investigations into their security force’s human rights violations.

Yet, the issues surrounding security aid and accountability still have a lot of room for improvement. After all, the number of Guatemalans and Hondurans crossing the US-Mexico border have increased by roughly 400% and 700% since 2015, respectively.

“I wish there were more of a linear progression in the right direction. Overall there's often too much focus on counternarcotics objectives at the expense of everything else, which usually doesn't result in very good counternarcotics policy either,” says Haugaard.

“That’s a constant problem that affects both Democrat and Republican administrations. You need to talk about rule of law and human rights and that’ll help various problems in a deeper way.”

Sources (in order of appearance):

Security Assistance Monitor. Security Aid Dashboard, Economic Aid Dashboard.

“Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress”. Congressional Research Service, page 1. December 17, 2015.

US Military Assistance and Latin America. Washington Office on Latin America.

Crimes of the Powerful in Conflicted-Affected Environments: False Positives, Transitional Justice and the Prospects for Peace in Colombia. JSTOR. 2017.

Human Rights Costs During Plan Colombia. Latin America Working Group.

Past Extrajudicial Murders Haunt Colombia's Military Command.

"Will Drug Conspiracy Allegations End US Support for Honduras President?". Insight Crime. August 5, 2019.

Son Of the Former President of Honduras Sentenced to 24 Years in Prison For Conspiring to Import Cocaine Into the United States. US Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York. September 2017.

Transparency International.

Honduras Election Protests Met with Heavy Force. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. March 2018.

U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America: Policy Issues for Congress. July 24, 2019. Congressional Research Service.

Torres Statement on State Department List of Corrupt Central American Government Officials. Press Release. 2019.

Rep Johnson Introduces the “Berta Cárceres Human Rights Act in Honduras Act”. Press Release. 2019.

U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector in FY2007

U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector Fiscal Year 2019.