Human Rights Absent in US-Mexico Conference on Central America Despite Concern in Congress Over Abuses

On the eve of a major policy-defining conference on Central America last week, 37 members of the US Congress called for a focus on human rights and root causes in addressing Central American migration. Instead the conference ended up recommending improving conditions for foreign investment in the Northern Triangle, harder borders and a military-police crackdown on migration and drug trafficking.

Human rights weren’t even on the table. The Central America meeting resulted in a reaffirmation of some of the worst Obama policies in the region, with a Trumpian twist.

The Congressional letter urged an immediate change in U.S. policy, stating “It has become clear that without significant changes to U.S. policy to address the root causes of migration in Central America a policy of merely trying to stop people from leaving the region will remain ineffective, not to mention inhumane.” Instead, the conference delivered more of the same, ratcheted up a notch.

The Mexican government co-hosted the event with Homeland Security, in yet another attempt to curry favor with the Trump administration before NAFTA negotiations.  Homeland Security Secretary and former SouthCom commander Gen. John Kelly ran the show, with VP Mike Pence, Sec. of State Rex Tillerson, and the Pentagon playing key roles, especially behind the scenes. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, Salvadoran vice president Oscar Ortiz, observers and investors looked on with secret trepidation, in the context of major cutbacks to US aid to the region and the fear that their people will be deported and temporary migratory status rescinded.

The vague declarations from DHS pay lip service to the “soft side” programs of the U.S. drug war strategy in the region, such as US training of police and justice officials in Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador), and increasing infrastructure and integration.

The “hard side” is spoken of mostly in euphemisms, but is highly concentrated on border security build-up aimed at keeping migrants in. The hyped-up language on stopping drug trafficking does not solve the most pressing threats to U.S. society. Cocaine is trafficked through Central America, but US cocaine consumption has held steady in recent years and causes about half as many deaths as heroin and a fraction of those caused by prescription drugs.  Moreover, all studies point to the futility of addressing problematic drug use by attempting to dismantle cartels in the field. The militarized model not only does not work, it siphons off needed funds for treatment and prevention in the United States and causes regressions in democratic transition and rule of law.

That is already clear in Mexico. The members of the House of Representatives expressed concern over human rights abuses through Mexico’s Southern border Program, or Plan Frontera Sur, citing “unlawful killings, tortures and disappearances” by Mexican police and military and on-going corruption and impunity. A report by Reuters, which received internal US memos on the conference, stated that a major goal was to increase Mexico’s role in detaining migrants at its southern border.

The congressional letter notes that deportations of Central Americans from Mexico doubled between 2013 and 2015, raising concerns of violation of the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. It notes that security presence has forced migrants into remote and dangerous areas, leading to an increase in attacks and cites studies showing that up to 60% of women and girls migrating through Mexico are sexually assaulted and 68% of migrants suffer violent attacks. Finally, the congressmen and women emphasize the importance of Mexico coming into full compliance with international human rights standards and laws regarding the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers.

The Miami meeting ignored human rights and refugee rights. There appears to have been no discussion of government abuses as a result of intensified joint operations to stop migrant flows to the United States, particularly by Mexican security forces and increasingly by Central American forces charged with controlling outmigration of their own people.

Instead, Adm. Kurt Tidd, head of SouthCom where the security part of the meeting took place, justified the military approach to both crime and migration, noting that the threat posed by organized crime “blurs the lines between law enforcement and national defense…” The Department of Homeland Security stressed a renewed war on drugs, using ominous language to conflate migratory flows with contraband:

“With no regard for human life, TCOs (transnational criminal organizations) move anything and everything through their dark networks—including weapons, counterfeit goods, and smuggled and trafficked persons. They play a large role in the North American drug epidemic—a crisis that claimed more than 60,000 lives in 2016, the highest level in history.” Kelly conveniently failed to mention the fact that half of opioid overdose deaths are from U.S. prescription drugs.
By defining migration patterns as part of illegal networks, and human smuggling as synonymous to drug trafficking, but with men women and children as the prohibited product, migration entered the discussion as part of launching international efforts to eliminate organized crime. The “deliverables” listed and the State Department include:

“Northern Triangle leaders committed to support a migration observatory supported by the United States to study and share information on regional migration flows.  They also committed to explore the creation of early warning protocols regarding the movement of drugs, weapons, money, and other illicit goods.”

The wording is designed to appear neutral, but the juxtaposition of the two sentences is revealing. The crackdown on migration is included in the crackdown on the networks. The irony is that it was jacked-up security on the borders–along with the lack of immigration reforms and mechanisms for labor mobility–that forced migrants to resort to organized crime for transit.

Organizations working to support migrants already know the ever-changing migratory routes and flows. An inter-governmental observatory followed up by “early warning protocols” translates into increased monitoring and repression of migrants.

The list of “deliverables” from the meeting also promises:

Regional governments agreed to explore enhancements to border security – both maritime and terrestrial – through cross-border cooperation, and to target drug trafficking organizations and human smuggling networks working in Central America. Northern Triangle governments also agreed to increase internal coordination between national institutions at key ports of entry to improve efforts to detect and seize contraband, deter human smuggling and trafficking, and improve regional security.”

Here language plays a key role: “Enhancements” is a lovely word for patrols of armed military and police and gulag-style surveillance equipment. And “human smuggling” is now the way governments talk about the desperate attempt of human beings to flee violence and hunger and find a place where they can live in peace and raise their families.

The conference concluded with the dual messages that the free market will magically keep people home despite doing precisely the opposite for the past twenty years, and that, once on the road, migrants are merely the goods of criminal trafficking networks that must be attacked on all fronts.