WASHINGTON, D.C. — In fiscal year 2016, three countries in Central America received a combined $750 million from the U.S. to help their governments fight some of the toughest challenges they face and which drive immigration: violence, drugs, lack of economic opportunity.
But it’s not always easy to gauge the impact the assistance has in solving social ills. To help measure results, the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, has launched the Central America Monitor, a way of tracking U.S. assistance and its impact on the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Latin America — Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — that receive the bulk of the aid.
Adriana Beltran, of WOLA’s citizen security program, helped introduce the monitor during a panel in Washington May 17.
“WOLA and our partners welcome the renewed attention to Central America, the support and interest of the U.S. Congress to figure out a way of addressing the many challenges that the region faces: The violence, the weak institutions, the lack of economic opportunity and the poverty that are driving these people to leave their communities,” Beltran said.
Many discussions center on how, or whether money appropriated helps in the areas it’s supposed to bring relief, Beltran said. In fiscal year 2017, Congress gave additional aid to help combat some of the problems the Northern Triangle countries say they are facing and which drive their citizens, including unaccompanied children, to leave home. There has be a way to measure the effectiveness of that help, said Democratic Congresswoman Norma Torres, who was briefly part of the panel. Torres was born in Guatemala but now represents California’s 35th Congressional District.
“In 2014, tens of thousands of children arrived on our southwest border. We know why they came. They were fleeing violence. They were fleeing poverty and they were seeking assistance from the U.S.,” said Torres. “In the United States Congress, we made a commitment to help address these problems so that children don’t have to flee their homes. As someone who was born in Guatemala and came here when I was 5, I want to help create the conditions where the next Norma Torres can dream of being a member of their own Congress in their own home country.”
But Torres, who founded the bipartisan Central American Caucus, and has been an advocate for increased assistance to fight corruption, improve security, and promote economic development in Central America, said there has to be transparency about how governments are using the money and make sure that it’s being spent effectively.
“We need to pay close attention,” Torres said, adding that the Central America Monitor is a step in that important direction. “I’m confident this is going to be a valuable resource for members of Congress” and other agencies seeking information, she said.
Beltran said the monitor will help track U.S. assistance to the region and provide as much information as is available about where the money is going and for what kind of programs it’s being used. It will also help evaluate the progress in Central America and assess whether there have been concrete advances or setbacks.
Geoff Thale, program director at WOLA, gave the example of El Salvador, which like its neighbors, faces a number of major challenges.
“One of those challenges has to do with violence, particularly gang violence which has driven internal displacement and driven forced migration,” Thale said. “Much of the U.S. assistance package is designed to work with the Salvadoran government and civil society in El Salvador to strengthen institutions in ways that will make the justice system more effective, reduce the likelihood of criminal violence and therefore (reduce) displacement and migration.”
Slowly, changes are taking place, he said. The new attorney general in El Salvador for example, has brought indictments against a major drug trafficker and brought criminal cases against three former presidents, as well as opened up a human rights unit that’s beginning to investigate past human rights violations, such as the massacre in a hamlet called El Mozote, where the Salvadoran army and other military forces are suspected to have killed approximately 900 civilians in 1981.
There’s commitment to address crime and major unresolved cases, Thale said, and that helps address structural reform issues, as well as human rights violations, that the country’s citizens have long clamored for.
In 2013, a delegation from the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traveled to Central America to research the plight of unaccompanied minors to the U.S.
One of the long-term solutions to the crisis they suggested was U.S. assistance “to address the push factors driving minors north. This would include improvements in education, employment, and enforcement as well as improvements in the social service and child protection systems,” the delegation said in a report released after the mission trip. The USCCB has urged aid to address the root causes of migration. And in part, that’s what some of the taxpayer-funded aid is seeking to do.
In addition to introducing the monitor, WOLA also recommended that Congress provide additional aid to Central America for fiscal year 2018 but said the assistance should be based on progress made by the governments in fighting corruption, strengthening public institutions, being transparent and protecting human rights. Among other recommendations, the organization also said any U.S. aid should not be used for military involvement in law enforcement in Central America.