Central America: US acts on child migrant ‘danger’

US vice president Joe Biden made a one-day visit to Guatemala on June 20 for a meeting with regional authorities on the recent increase in Central Americans, especially underage minors, apprehended while attempting to enter the US without authorization at the Mexican border. Calling the influx of children "an enormous danger for security" as well as a "humanitarian issue," Biden said the US planned to continue repatriating the young immigrants but would provide Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with $9.6 million to reintegrate the deportees into society. The US is also offering financial aid that officials say will help stop the flow of immigrants: $40 million to Guatemala to launch a five-year program to reduce youth recruitment into gangs; $25 million for a five-year program to add 77 youth centers to the 30 now operating in El Salvador; $18.5 million through the six-year-old US-sponsored Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to support Honduran institutions in the fight against crime; and $161.5 million for CARSI throughout the region.

Participants in the meeting—the last stop on a tour that had taken Biden to Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic—included Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, Honduran government coordinator Jorge Ramón Hernández and Mexican governance secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio.

The number of unaccompanied Central American minors detained at the Mexico-US border from October 2013 through May 2014 increased by 66% over the number in the same period a year earlier, according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The total of 34,611 detained Central American children included 9,850 Salvadorans, 11,479 Guatemalans and 13,282 Hondurans. US officials blame the sudden increase on Central American governments' failure to control the drug-related violence that drives many youths to flee their countries; the US also cites reports of rumors that US immigrant authorities would be lenient with unaccompanied minors caught at the border.

Central American officials respond by pointing to the US government's failure to control the demand for drugs in the US, the main stimulus for drug trafficking in the Caribbean Basin region, and also to frustration over the US government's apparent inability to change its laws to accommodate some 11 million immigrants now living in the country without documents. The Central Americans "have focused their diplomatic efforts on pushing for better conditions for the detained children," according to the New York Times. Guatemalan president Pérez Molina has asked the US to grant Guatemalans temporary protected status (TPS) in the US, while Honduran foreign minister Mireya Agüero de Corrales has called for Honduran minors to be granted special status to stay in the US with family members. Honduras' right-wing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, pointedly skipped the meeting with Biden so he could attend the World Cup soccer championship in Brazil. (La Jornada, Mexico, June 18; Prensa Libre, Guatemala, June 20, from EFE; NYT, June 21)

Progressive organizations are also critical of US policies. In a June 18 statement SOA Watch, a US-based group that tracks abuses by Latin American military officers trained at the US Army's School of the Americas (SOA, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC), noted that the increases in unauthorized migration from Honduras followed the "SOA-graduate led coup" in that country on June 28, 2009, almost exactly five years before Biden's 2014 visit. "The current humanitarian crisis on the border is a direct result of the drastic US-led militarization of the drug war [in Central America and Mexico], unequal economic relationships (e.g. Free Trade Agreements that have ravaged campesino communities), and US support for the cartel-infiltrated post-coup government of Honduras," SOA Watch charged. The group encourages US residents to sign a petition to the US Congress "to end the counterproductive funding of the Drug War and the corrupt Honduran regime" (accessible here). (SOA Watch, June 18, via Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County)

On June 21 the Mexican Senate's Human Rights Commission called on the US government to respect the rights of the minors detained at the border and asked Mexican diplomats to make visits to detention centers to ensure that the youths are being treated properly. But Mexican human rights groups continued to focus on the mistreatment of Central American migrants passing through Mexico. Central Americans traveling in the northern state of Coahuila cite the local police along with criminal gangs as the main dangers they face. Pedro Pantoja, a Catholic priest and an adviser at a Coahuila shelter for migrants, says the travelers sometimes fear the police more than the gangs: "They don't know who to run from." A Mexican reporter describes the municipalities of Coatzacoalcos, Tierra Blanca and Las Choapas in the south of Veracruz as "the Bermuda Triangle for Central American migrants" because of the regular attacks by armed gangs. In the most recent case, three Central Americans were shot by robbers as they tried to ride a freight train in the area on the weekend of June 13; one died from his wounds. (LJ, June 18, June 22)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 22.