On his first day in office, President Biden issued a series of executive orders and introduced an immigration bill to Congress that provides new pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain qualifications. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 also addresses the root causes of migration by proposing a $4 billion, four-year plan to help Central American governments and civil society reduce violence, corruption, and absolute poverty.
The bill comes after a caravan of thousands of migrants, mostly from Honduras, attempted to make its way to the United States but was forcibly turned back by Guatemalan security forces. This incident portends a rise in migration levels from Central America, as people are forced to leave a region where the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change-induced hurricanes, and endemic violence are exacerbating some of the most powerful drivers of migration. To understand just how much conditions in the region have recently deteriorated, look to the impact of last November’s Hurricanes Eta and Iota: over nine million people displaced, an estimated three million facing crisis levels of food insecurity, and an economic toll estimated to be greater than that of 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.
Given these worsening conditions, the Biden administration’s renewed attention on Central America is welcome. Critical humanitarian and emergency relief for affected communities is desperately needed. Well-targeted foreign assistance to improve economic, social, and security conditions can help provide an alternative to migration for Central American families. But to achieve sustained results, the U.S. government must make improving governance and tackling systemic corruption the center of its policy toward the region.
Corruption hobbles Central America’s institutions, meaning that families can’t rely on honest police officers to protect them, healthcare or school systems to meet minimum standards of care, or elected officials to act in the people’s interest. Indeed, the main impediment to sustained economic growth and improved security in the Northern Triangle are the deep structural challenges related to poor governance and corruption—so found a recent study by the Woodrow Wilson Center.
More than the product of a few bad apples, corruption permeates nearly all of the region’s government institutions, serving the interests of a small but powerful circle of actors. These corrupt networks—made up of economic elites and criminal groups—have co-opted institutions, enabling them to use public funds to maintain their economic status, protect themselves from accountability, and fund political parties and candidates. Recent investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice reveal the extensive nexus between corrupt politicians, business leaders, and criminal syndicates in the region. Notably, these corrupt networks have also played a key role in impeding key anti-corruption reforms, and were behind the demise of successful internationally-backed anti-corruption mechanisms in Guatemala and Honduras.
These corrupt networks would not have been able to strengthen their power and grip on state institutions had U.S. policy not suffered an important shift. For decades Washington had funneled money, military, and law enforcement into the region, paradoxically fueling more corruption and violence in an attempt to get a handle on the illegal narcotics industry pushing northward over the borders and into American cities.
In recent years, important advances were made tackling grand corruption and confronting the private interests that have historically ruled Central America. These efforts were in great part due to successful international rule of law mechanisms that enjoyed the strong backing of Republican and Democratic administrations and lawmakers. Rather than continuing these efforts, the Trump administration’s overwhelming focus on security-orientated responses to the violence and deterring migration overlooked the increasing democratic backsliding in the region. He chose to maintain support for corrupt government officials and elites in exchange for cooperation on preventing migration to the United States. In addition, the administration’s decision to suspend most assistance to the Northern Triangle weakened efforts to hold governments’ accountable and improve citizen security and economic conditions.
The most marginalized and impoverished in Central America are the ones who’ve suffered the most as a result of these entrenched networks of corruption. Decades of graft and neglect have undercut job creation and drained resources away from spending on important services like public health and education. Corruption in public works projects has resulted in shady deals and shoddy infrastructure, leaving many communities vulnerable to the impacts of health emergencies or environmental disasters. An estimated $13 billion is lost to corruption every year—a situation that has been made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, as public officials have taken advantage of emergency public health spending to siphon off funds. In Honduras alone, tens of millions of dollars of pandemic relief funds were wasted on subpar and overvalued medical equipment.
Biden understands these challenges. As vice president, he traveled to the region and supported the anti-corruption commissions in Honduras and Guatemala. His plan as a presidential candidate recognized that corruption was preventing the countries of the Northern Triangle from “making meaningful progress on any of their other key challenges.” So far, his administration has hit the right notes in terms of rhetoric, warning that “a leader unready to go after corruption won’t be a U.S. ally.”
To see its anti-corruption agenda through, the Biden administration must ensure that aid and diplomacy are centered around several priorities. These include supporting civil society actors, independent journalists, and those within government who have been leading anti-corruption reform efforts and serving as the main counterweight to government graft. The second is strengthening the independence and capacity of judges and prosecutors to ensure that they are free of external pressure and political intimidation and to help build robust justice systems across the region that are well-equipped to investigate and dismantle illicit networks. The third priority is improving transparency and government oversight agencies. Lastly, it includes ensuring that bilateral assistance and loans are conditioned on clear and concrete actions on the part of the governments of Central America to tackle systemic corruption and strengthen transparency and the rule of law.
To be effective, the administration’s foreign aid policy and diplomatic efforts need to work hand in hand. When combined together and given purpose, these two instruments can produce meaningful results. From the start, the Biden administration should make clear that it stands with those who have been at the forefront of the battle for good governance and the rule of law, and that corruption will not be tolerated. It must respond swiftly and forcefully to any efforts to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law by distancing itself from corrupt leaders and members of the private sector who have engaged or abetted graft other illegal actions. The government has important tools that can help advance this agenda, such as the Magnitsky Act, State Department designations, and targeted sanctions under the Office of Foreign Asset Control. As a first step, the Biden administration should make use of the recently approved Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act which requires the government to publish a list of corrupt public officials and private individuals in the Northern Triangle, who will then be denied entry into the United States.
Nonetheless, even if assistance is strategically targeted and well managed, it’s unrealistic to expect a sustained transformation in four years. Given the long-term nature of the region’s challenges, they will require a persistent, long-term strategy to advance fundamental reforms. Ultimately, sustained change will fall short absent the political will of the governments of Central America — a commitment that is presently lacking as corrupt elites seek to dismantle any remaining checks on their power and shield themselves from accountability. Yet, as described earlier, political will can be fostered with the right incentives and policy tools.
Central America is at a pivotal moment. The region does not lack capable and committed reformers within and outside of government. By standing firmly with them, the Biden administration can give Central America’s anti-corruption efforts an urgently needed second wind.