Cause and Effect

Social Sciences9 MIN READ

Lindsay Mayka on the southern border, Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and U.S. aid

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
June 20, 2019

Assistant Professor of Government Lindsay Mayka sat down with Colby Magazine staff writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 to discuss U.S. policies on immigration and the reasons why people are fleeing Central America to seek asylum in the United States.

How will cutting aid to the Northern Triangle countries affect people living in those countries?

Before entering graduate school, I worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, working on similar aid projects. The United States has provided aid to Central American countries much like it provides aid to dozens of countries throughout the world. These programs cover a whole range of different kinds of initiatives. … A lot of them are directly related to poverty and to the relationship between poverty and violence. But, in general, there is evidence to suggest that these kinds of interventions do have an impact. They certainly can reduce poverty, but they can also reduce rates of violence and crime. Cuts to these programs—the sort of obvious effect is that it is going to lead to more people leaving. Given that people are motivated by a range of reasons, including economic insecurity, these programs seek to add a little bit more of that kind of security. For example, somebody is a farmer. If you can make farming just a little bit better of a living, that might be the reason why somebody wants to stay home. And so if you take away some of that economic security, you’re going to have people who are more likely to leave.

If the stated goal of cutting aid is to decrease immigration, and if more people are going to leave as a result, why do you think that decision was made in first place?

It is important when talking about immigration, in particular under this administration, to separate technical policy analysis of the impacts of certain decisions from the politics behind the policy. It seems clear to me that the purpose of this decision is not, in fact, to reduce rates of migration. It is to demonstrate a hardline stance and to show people in the United States that “we’re doing something about this.” … I think we see a similar dynamic when it comes to discussing support for the border wall. … For example, when Trump talks about the need for a wall, he often refers to the flow of drugs into the United States, but the vast majority of drugs come in through legal ports of entry. … So creating a wall has nothing to do with the flow of drugs into the United States. … When you’re talking about creating a wall, the idea is that you’re creating a barrier to keep out what they would present as the hordes of bad people. Even if it doesn’t actually do that, it creates the symbolism of doing that. Likewise, the Northern Triangle countries are presented as being bad, as being diseased in a way. “They’re a problem. They’re bringing their problems into the United States and infecting us, and we don’t have room for them, and we don’t want them.” … If you’re cutting off aid it’s a way of saying, “you didn’t fix your problem and we’re going to punish you for it,” which disregards the interrelated nature of historic U.S. policies and the rise of these problems.

Central American immigrants walk into Texas after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico
Central American immigrants walk into Texas after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on Feb. 1, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. They later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

So what’s causing people from the Northern Triangle to leave and seek asylum?

There is a mix of reasons why people seek to leave. Violence is probably the biggest. … This is the most violent region within Latin America, with really astronomical homicide rates in addition to other sorts of violence, such as violence against women, kidnappings, and beatings, etc. There are two separate but sometimes interrelated forms of organized crime that are behind this. One would be the Maras, of which MS-13 has become famous in the United States. These are street gangs that are much more organized, professionalized, and brutal than other kinds of street gangs. … And the other would be narcos, drug trafficking organizations. And the narcos seek to control drug smuggling routes from South America up to the United States, because the United States is where the bulk of drugs are consumed. …This organized crime is combined with very high levels of poverty, inequality, and other forms of social exclusion. Things like having terrible schools, poor social services. These all come together to create a situation where there’s very little opportunity for people, in particular for families that have children. Just like families in the United States, they’re seeking a better life for their children and thinking about the future.

What’s the origin of this violence?

It’s obviously an extremely tricky question, but there are two things that I would point to that I think often are left out of the conversation in the United States. The first is the United States’ support for very brutal military dictatorships in the 1980s. The United States spent lots of money funding these military dictatorships during the Reagan years, the peak of the Cold War, because they were seen as fighting communism. That had the effect of further weakening the state and the security apparatus. … So what I would highlight there is that the United States had a major role in weakening state capacity to provide security in these countries. The second part would be that United States policies have created conditions that foster the growth of the kinds of criminal organizations that are behind much the violence. MS-13 and other Maras actually originated in the United States. They were formed in the United States. With the rise of mass incarceration in the 1990s, many went to prison, and in U.S. prisons they became more organized gangs, and then people were deported to Central America. … The second part that I would point to would be related to drugs. U.S. policies have involved cracking down on drugs and transit routes for the original drug trade, which used to go through the Caribbean up through Miami into the United States because of very high levels of demand for drugs, in particular cocaine. Because of the crackdown on those drug routes, the narcos relocated to Central America. … Overall the mass demand for cocaine and ineffective anti-drug policies are crucial to understanding why the Northern Triangle countries have emerged as the epicenter of violence. You’re creating conditions where organized crimes can really thrive through U.S. drug policies.

Homicides (per 100,000 people)

Homicide rates of Northern Triangle map graphic
The Northern Triangle has astronomical homicide rates as well as high rates of violence against women, kidnappings, and beatings, said Mayka. “The Northern Triangle countries are the most violent subregion within the world, and Latin America is the most violent region within the world.”

International homicide rates, The World Bank, 2016

So at least one portion of this problem is created by U.S. demand for drugs.


And how is that going to get solved? Because it doesn’t seem like the demand is going to go anywhere. And it seems like the more demand there is the more violent it will get.

I know that this is not going to happen anytime soon, but all of the people that I know who are experts in this—political scientists and other academics studying the politics and the economics of the drug trade—have one policy recommendation: decriminalization. When you have an illegal market like this, there’s a black market. … Black markets become very profitable. And if the demand is really high then somebody is going to step in. When you have this sort of demand for an illicit economy, you often see competition between rival organizations. And when that happens they will use violence because that is the rule that they are operating under. The profit margins are just so high that they know it’s worth it to protect the product and the product alone. … I know this sounds impossible. But to be fair, I also used to think that legalizing marijuana was never going to happen in my lifetime, and things have really radically changed in the past 10 years even. I know that’s sort of a really “out there” recommendation, but anything that involves enforcement is going to just increase profit margins. And that’s going to increase incentives for violence.

Instead of cutting back aid, what could have been done if the government’s goal is to decrease immigration?

Just as the first starting point, I do not personally accept that decreasing immigration should be our goal. I think that there are plenty of places that really could use more people coming in, Maine being one. Maine is a place that has net loss of population and, in particular, young people. So that would be a place that could benefit from immigration. And there are actually plenty of places in the United States that could benefit from new people coming in. While I do not accept the premise that we need to be reducing the number of people seeking asylum, I would say that it is important to think about how one might reduce the problems of violence and [social] exclusion in the Northern Triangle countries. And if we’re talking about the United States, my response would not be directly related to migration. I would say that from everything that we’ve learned, cracking down more and more, developing more technologically sophisticated systems of monitoring, using drones, all these things—they actually do not reduce the percentage of people who cross without authorization, and they don’t reduce people seeking asylum because people still have good reasons why they left their home.

Lindsay Mayka’s new book, Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America: Reform Coalitions and Institutional Change, is out from Cambridge University Press. It examines how and why some countries succeed in building participatory institutions whereas others experience stalling or collapsing in the process. As case studies, she looks at Brazil’s and Colombia’s nationally mandated health, social assistance, and planning councils. This comparison makes her book the first of its kind. She investigates how these countries—both of which established legal frameworks for participatory policymaking at the beginning of the 1990s—had such varying outcomes with their participatory institutions. After a thorough analysis, she argues that participatory institutions flourish when they are incorporated into sweeping policy reforms. Mayka’s book also draws out four key policy lessons emerged from the study in order for donors and policy practitioners to utilize when thinking about participatory institutions. Read more on Lindsay Mayka’s website.

More information and slideshow about Central America’s Northern Triangle:
Council on Foreign Relations, The Road North