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El Salvador Needs Economic Development, Rule of Law

Latin America is a policy backwater in this town, but that needs to change. Really change. It is one of many important, yet seemingly not significant enough regions in the world that, for some odd reason, fails to garner much-needed attention by policymakers that it deserves. Why should they bother with it and why should you care? Because what happens in seemingly faraway and exotic places such as Guatemala City, Managua, or Tegucigalpa, impacts many U.S. cities, and not just along the border with Mexico, as well as your wallet.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a great, yet sobering story reporting one of the region’s hotspots, San Salvador, and how this nation of 5 million people is tackling a decades long battle against transnational gang and other criminality. What happens in this tiny Central American country ripples into the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Illegal immigration, illegal drugs, gang violence, child labor, are but a few of the public policy challenges that Virginia lawmakers and communities must tackle because things are so bad in that part of the world for so many people.

Photo by Jan Sochor a  photojournalist born in the Czech Republic, showing a  Mara Salvatrucha gang graffiti painted on the wall of the prison in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador, 18 May 2011. Through his images, Sochor shows "how during the last two decades, Central America has become the deadliest region in the world that is not at war. According to the UN statistics, more people per capita were killed in El Salvador than in Iraq, in recent years. Due to the criminal activities of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang (M-18), the two major street gangs in El Salvador, the country has fallen into the spiral of fear, violence and death. Thousands of Mara gang members, both on the streets or in the overcrowded prisons, organize and run extortions, distribution of drugs and kidnappings. Tattooed armed young men, mainly from the poorest neighborhoods, fight unmerciful turf battles with their coevals from the rival gang, balancing between life and death every day. Twenty years after the devastating civil war, a social war has paralyzed the nation of El Salvador."
Photo by Jan Sochor a photojournalist born in the Czech Republic, showing a Mara Salvatrucha gang graffiti painted on the wall of the prison in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador, 18 May 2011. Through his images, Sochor shows “how during the last two decades, Central America has become the deadliest region in the world that is not at war. According to the UN statistics, more people per capita were killed in El Salvador than in Iraq, in recent years. Due to the criminal activities of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang (M-18), the two major street gangs in El Salvador, the country has fallen into the spiral of fear, violence and death. Thousands of Mara gang members, both on the streets or in the overcrowded prisons, organize and run extortions, distribution of drugs and kidnappings. Tattooed armed young men, mainly from the poorest neighborhoods, fight unmerciful turf battles with their coevals from the rival gang, balancing between life and death every day. Twenty years after the devastating civil war, a social war has paralyzed the nation of El Salvador.” Visit his website.

El Salvador’s criminal gang problem is a symptom of a much more problematic disease, corruption and a lack of the rule of law. That nation’s head of the anti-gang unit, Mr. Pedro Gonzalez, is spot on when he told the Washington Post, “[i]f you have both cancer and a headache, you’ll deal with the headache now and worry about the cancer tomorrow. You have to treat the pain.”

The United States sends millions of dollars a year in U.S. taxpayer-funded foreign and technical assistance to places such as El Salvador. And while it seems as if the money, training, and other assistance has helped, somewhat, to stem the intensity of the problem, until El Salvador and other poor nations in the region do something about economic opportunity and the rule of law, criminals will proliferate and fill the void created by the endemic poverty that has been created by decades of failed centralized government planning. Education reform, in some countries, could also use an overhaul.

Without exception, Central American policy planning is left of center. The same holds true for many Caribbean and South American governments. Governments in the region provide way too much economic assistance. This breeds dependency, not independence. It creates poverty, not economic prosperity. As a result, it is no longer a localized problem. It has spread to American cities and the U.S. taxpayer has to spend money to deal with increased crime as well as the provision of social services to displaced persons.

Over the course of at least 50 years, billions have been invested by governments, corporations, and NGOs. The silver lining is that it could be a whole lot worse, but for these efforts. However, the violence and criminality is spreading and, yes, it has become a breeding ground for rather unsavory post-09/11/01 characters, terrorists included, who see opportunities to hide and facilitate larger, even deadlier plots against this country.

There are no easy answers or cookie cutter approaches to helping start address the poverty issue in these countries; however, one thing that should be done is a sober assessment of the problem, country by country, and then tackle each one with a free market, rule of law mindset, rather than a dependency and central planning model. Throwing more money for law enforcement, alone, is simply not going to cut it. The police and military can only do so much. The policymakers and business community need to step it up, as does the United States. These folks need American companies investing in the region, not more Chinese or Russian interests.

To bring this issue closer to home, especially to fellow conservatives who struggle with the illegal immigration issue and amnesty, if you want to fix this system, you need to look beyond our borders to make it so. This means doing a whole lot more than tinkering with foreign assistance programs in Congressional appropriations or drafting annual reports on the plethora of issues that the State Department dispatches annually. The good news in all this is that advances in technology and information sharing can make this process, with proper leadership, a whole lot smoother in the region.

  • Arthur

    The one program that would have addressed this matter was the Millennium Challenge Corporation that was set up by the Bush administration. Its initial focus was tying foreign aid to economic reforms. Unfortunately, the Obama administration changed its focus to equal pay, and the environment. You are correct that some countries in Latin America view us as a safety valve in the sense that if the economic conditions are bad, then encourage them to leave. I think Congress should tie in foreign aid with economic reforms. At the same time, Congress should reduce foreign aid to those countries who have failed to enact economic reforms and transfer that money to our immigration enforcement.

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