Reuters
A Honduran police officer checks the documents of a group of nationals at a checkpoint near the border with Guatemala.

Biden’s first steps on Central American migration

Three countries will boost border security against people-smuggling, signaling the Biden administration’s goal of improving rule of law in the region.

Nearly three months into his presidency, Joe Biden has taken the first concrete step to address the root causes of mass migration from Central America. His envoys secured agreements with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to tighten their borders. The main goal: to prevent criminal traffickers from aiding people in making the dangerous journey to the United States.

These deals come just in time. The number of people apprehended at the U.S. southern border jumped 71% between February and March with those three countries accounting for the highest number of migrants. Border agents also apprehended a record number of unaccompanied minors.

The agreements confirm the heart of President Biden’s plan for the region: strengthening the rule of law in order to tackle corruption, especially the kind between crime cartels and government officials.

“Corruption is something that affects conditions in Central America in an important way because the perception of impunity that people in powerful positions have when they commit acts of corruption has an impact: It discourages the population and contributes to the feeling that they have no future in their countries,” explains Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s envoy for the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

In a global survey last year that measured rule of law in 113 countries, those three countries ranked among the lowest, not only in the world but also in Latin America. The rankings, done by the World Justice Project, a nonprofit group backed by the American Bar Association, showed little or no progress for Central America despite millions of dollars spent by the U.S. in the region since 2014.

The survey did note one success story. In Honduras, a civil society group, the Association for a More Just Society, uncovered serious issues with overpriced services and supplies to fight the pandemic last year. The private audit caused a senior official to resign.

As a sign of the Biden administration’s hope of channeling more money directly to corruption fighters in these countries, Mr. Zúñiga said the U.S. will donate $2 million to the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador. He said the U.S. goal is to help Central America create “safe, prosperous, and democratic societies, where the citizens of the region can build their own lives with dignity.” Only then might irregular migration decline for the long term.

The universal idea of equal standing before the law, which is rooted in the dignity of each individual and the power of conscience, can take root in Central America. The U.S. is only one player, although a big one in supporting local civil society groups. Rule of law is not the domain of only politicians, lawyers, and judges. “Everyday issues of safety, rights, justice, and governance affect us all; everyone is a stakeholder in the rule of law,” states the World Justice Project.

While more troops at the border is a first step, further measures will require addressing why people in the region want to seek a new life in the U.S. One reason is their desire for a rule-based society.

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