U.S. foreign aid to Central America has pivoted to military spending. But is it helping?
Updated: May 19
President Donald Trump’s decision in October not to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to Central America elicited a general sigh of relief, particularly among U.S. Congress and administration officials. But the apparent relief from that decision belies humanitarian and political corruption issues that many social activist groups say are enabled by that same funding.
U.S. foreign assistance funding for security assurance — used to arm and train military and police forces — has constituted an increasingly larger percentage of foreign aid in the past decade. 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.
Christina Arabia, director of the Security Assistance Monitor, said the Department of Defense has been footing more of the bill for foreign assistance than the Department of State. “So we are seeing a lot more of a militarized approach across the board in regards to aid,” she said.
While funding for State Department programs has increased, the overall amount allocated to the agency has seen a downward trend over the last few years.
“But that doesn’t mean security aid is going down,” Arabia said. “It’s just leaving the (Department of State) programs and going through more (Department of Defense) programs.”
U.S. foreign security assistance funds are used to train national military and law enforcement agencies. The Trump administration has underlined that funding for Latin American countries — such as the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — aims to combat the drug war and gang violence.
But the militarization of law enforcement supplemented by U.S. funding has not necessarily led to peace and prosperity. Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, said citizens in Central American countries feel that the militarization of police is “not going in the right direction in most of these countries.”
A large portion of U.S. foreign security assistance funding is folded into the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. That initiative broke off from the Mérida Initiative created in 2008, which aimed to stem the production and flow of illegal drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border. Mérida in turn was partially modeled off of Plan Colombia, a 2000 aid package that helped the Colombian government fight FARC troops and drug-trafficking cartels.
While often touted by leaders as successful, these initiatives have been criticized by many activists and civilian groups, who claim the U.S. has empowered corrupt Colombian leaders and military personnel and has fostered human rights violations.
A common example is the notorious “false positives,” in which Colombian soldiers were rewarded for capturing and killing FARC guerrillas. A lack of oversight incentivized a system in which innocent civilians were incorrectly labelled as rebels and subsequently murdered. Eleanor Gordon, a senior lecturer international development at Monash University, said more than 3,000 innocent civilians were executed under this system, 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 U.S. 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. But because it targets particular military units, applying the law has proven to be difficult.
“It really gets enforced when there's a lot of pressure and enough specific information about assistance going to specific units,” Haugaard said. “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.”
The law also doesn’t address the systemic corruption that often precedes these crimes. Many authorities believe narcotrafficking and politics are so intertwined that they are nearly impossible to separate.
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 received a 24-year prison sentence for conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S. And the Northern Triangle countries have consistently ranked toward the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index rankings.
But corruption among politicians goes beyond lucrative, albeit illegal, trade. According to a United Nations Human Rights report, the Honduran government has allowed numerous human rights abuses.
During the controversial 2017 presidential election, the UN determined that the country’s military police killed 22 civilians — including two women and two children — while attempting to quell protests. Yet the reports did little to dissuade U.S. economic aid, with the percentage of aid going toward security assistance increasing from approximately 9% in 2010 to 28% in 2017.
Reports have also shown Latin American countries colluding with corporations and state security forces in displacing or intimidating indigenous populations. 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 collaborated with public security officials to assassinate Cárceres and intimidate the indigenous group fighting to protect the lands from corporate control. Haugaard said the activist’s fate is unfortunately not so unique.
“It’s a huge problem in Honduras and Guatemala,” she said. “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.
“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,” she said.
Further conditions beyond Leahy’s Law on Central American governments receiving U.S. aid have had mixed results. In certain circumstances those conditions have worked, such as the U.S. response to freeze funding due 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 its military police were responsible for civilian deaths during election protests.
Members of U.S. Congress and oversight committees are meant to add an extra layer of accountability when the U.S. departments fall short, but Arabia said their rhetoric is oftentimes more symbolic than substantive.
“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,” she said. “So it can be more of a political statement or a slap on the wrist more so than actually holding someone accountable.”
Some federal elected officials have chosen to be more vocal in proper oversight on federal aid. U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-California, slammed the State Department in April after it provided Congress with a vague and incomplete list of corrupt government officials in the Northern Triangle. And in honor of the slain activist Cáceres, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, reintroduced a bill in March that would suspend military aid to Honduras until its government officials conducted investigations into its security force’s human rights violations.
Humanitarian issues and corruption in Central American countries remain a pervasive issue, as shown in the 2019 U.S.-Mexico border crisis. The number of Guatemalans and Hondurans crossing the border increased by roughly 400% and 700%, respectively, since 2015.
Haugaard said there is no evidence of linear progress on these issues, and that counternarcotics objectives championed by the Trump administration can be at the expense of other humanitarian initiatives.
“That’s a constant problem that affects both Democrat and Republican administrations,” she said. “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. https://securityassistance.org/content/security-aid-dashboard
“Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress”. Congressional Research Service, page 1. December 17, 2015. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41731.pdf
US Military Assistance and Latin America. Washington Office on Latin America. https://www.wola.org/analysis/u-s-military-assistance-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. https://www.lawg.org/wp-content/uploads/storage/documents/Human_Rights_Costs_during_Plan_Colombia.pdf
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. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/son-former-president-honduras-sentenced-24-years-prison-conspiring-import-cocaine
Transparency International. https://www.transparency.org/country/HND
Honduras Election Protests Met with Heavy Force. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. March 2018. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22799&LangID=E
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.