A feeling of hopelessness and insecurity in Central America has fueled the exodus of 43,000 unaccompanied Central American children and teenagers to the US border this year, a ten-fold increase since 2009. The origin of the crisis lies in the growing menace of the violent narco-trafficking underworld in three countries: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Paradoxically, many of the roots of the crisis lie in the very country to which the children are fleeing—our own society's insatiable demand for narcotics, and the network of gangs originating in Los Angeles which have extended their talons deep into Central America.
Our non-profit organization, Mayan Partners, has witnessed the consequences of this hopelessness and insecurity first-hand. During our most recent trip to Guatemala this summer, we sensed a growing desire among those with whom we work to leave their home country and seek refuge in ours.
Many Christians want to know how we can be part of a solution to this crisis, how we can genuinely bring grace and peace to the situation, and not just feel better for our efforts. But first we must understand the origins of the crisis.
The Cancer of Organized Crime
There are seven countries in Central America. Of these, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador can be characterized as especially “weak states,” countries in which there is a historical pattern of government corruption, lawlessness, and an ineffectual presence in rural areas. Weak states are fertile soil for organized crime, and organized crime has spread like a metastasizing cancer cells within all three of these countries.
Unlike previous surges in illegal immigration on our southern border, the primary force that drives people is not civil war or even economic opportunity in the United States, but fear. People arriving at our borders fear the ever-increasing presence of organized crime in their rural villages and urban neighborhoods from which the state offers little protection.
The growth in narco-trafficking in these countries has stemmed from several factors. First, efforts to eradicate drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico have been semi-successful (from the perspective of those countries) in that they have pushed a great deal of the trafficking into other countries. Where in Mexico and Colombia drug cartels have been at war with the state, in Central America—with the exception of countries with stronger states such as Costa Rica and Nicaragua—the local climate has proved far more hospitable.
Another root of the crisis is related to the first wave of Central American immigration during the civil wars of the 1980s. When Central American refugees arrived in cities such as Los Angeles, local gangs resisted them. To protect themselves, the new arrivals formed gangs of their own. These gangs evolved into organized criminal organizations with ties to their home countries. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 precipitously increased US criminal deportations to Central America. These individuals, with few ties to their home countries, except through the web of the criminal underworld, have become kingpins of gang activity and organized crime in Central America.
The level of intimidation and violence inflicted by these criminal gangs is staggering. At 90 people per 100,000, the homicide rate in Honduras is the highest in the world. El Salvador and Guatemala rank fourth and fifth in the world with 41 and 40 per 100,000 respectively. (The US rate is 4.7 per 100,000; Canada is 1.6.) In these three countries, young boys are routinely threatened with death if they fail to affiliate with local gangs. As the murder rates suggest, these threats are anything but idle. Members of churches and community groups opposed to gang activity are often killed, bodies displayed in public to ward off others who might confront the gang's power over the community.
In the past, the influence of organized crime in Central America was mainly limited to the primal cities (Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, Guatemala City), but it now reaches into the rural hinterlands, where the influence of the state is even weaker. This combined with intransigent rural poverty has created the cocktail that has produced the current crisis.
What We Can Do
Many have called for an increase in border security. I used to think that this represented a callous and heavy-handed approach the problem. But I have come to believe otherwise. Failing to regulate the flow across our borders makes us unable to genuinely act with compassion to those who have legitimate refugee status, such as seriously threatened children. A porous border is not compassionate—it is just chaotic, making it difficult to differentiate between the many different needs and interests of undocumented persons, a process which can only happen under some semblance of order. A new immigration bill must substantially increase funding to create safe, orderly, and fair entry into our country.
One response taken by many churches has been to care for undocumented immigrants after they enter the United States. The concern displayed by individuals and churches for undocumented immigrants is admirable--in many cases it represents a real sacrifice made by caregivers. Indeed Scripture calls us to care for the alien in our midst (Lev. 19:34). But we need to do it wisely. And “in our midst” has a new meaning in the globalized era.
To act wisely in this context, one has to understand that migration to the United States has had a devastating impact on families in Central America. I have seen first-hand the negative impacts on families who have lost mothers and fathers to US migration. Caring for illegal immigrants is certainly a grace to the individual. But it doesn’t address the underlying problem. Indeed, when replicated on a large scale, it exacerbates the crisis. The more the church is viewed as welcoming any undocumented immigrant with open arms, the more it spurs undocumented immigration: more Central American families are broken apart, immigrants are forced into self-protection in our dangerous inner cities, and ties are strengthened between US gangs and Central American narco-networks. Moreover, Central American countries become increasingly dependent on foreign remittances at the cost of their development.
Instead, we should focus our compassion on the problems rather than symptoms. We can do this by helping to foster shalom in these Central American cities and villages, helping build healthy lives and families where peaceful prosperity can take root. But what can the North American church do?
These issues seem intractable, indeed so intractable in human terms, that the faithful witness of the church may offer one of the most hopeful ways forward.
We can begin reducing our country’s consumption of illegal drugs. And the only truly effective way to address the narcotics problem is on the demand side. Time and again, the supply-side approach has proven self-defeating. Supply interdiction merely pushes production to new areas, new dealers, and new narcotics. It increases drug prices, incentivizing further production and making drug markets worth killing for. Even if every government in the developing world were to clamp down hard on its narco-traffickers, it would cause narcotic prices to skyrocket absent a reduction in demand, incentivizing ever more sinister and brutal ways to meet that demand.
Here is one place the gospel comes in. Both an increasing—and increasingly committed—church in our country means fewer drug users in and of itself. It requires a North American church more effective at wooing our friends and neighbors who struggle with drug abuse to a better way, better for them and better for those who suffer from the drug trade. It is a church fully aware that every time we wean one of our own away from casual or habitual drug use, it creates a positive ripple effect: making the narcotics business just a little less lucrative for the local dealer, the smuggler, the kingpin, rippling back to the Honduran barrio and village. Multiplied a million times, these little ripples could become a powerful wave across the hemisphere, relegating the international narcotics trade into a meaningless economic sideshow.
Other action has to take place in Central America itself, which can be helped by international church partnership efforts to bring shalom to troubled villages and neighborhoods. One example: Partnership with a North American church can help empower Central American churches, giving them the resources to offer alternatives to narco-gang involvement, address local needs for youth work, after school programs, mentoring, education, and economic development.
I help lead a group called Mayan Partners, a small faith-based non-profit based in Berkeley, California, started by a group of alumni from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Mayan Partners works with local Christians in a single village in the western Guatemala highlands, where we sponsor a middle school, financially support a village library, and work in public health. We have recently initiated the process of importing hand-crafted Christmas ornaments from the village to help create rural jobs. We’ve also begun discussing the idea of importing paint brushes made in the village to boost the local economy. It is hard for organized crime to find recruits in places where everyone already has a job.
New communication technology provides great advantages in this kind of international partnership. Email, Skype, and cheap international calling rates allow for excellent communication between our partners in the village and us. A group of us visits them annually, sometimes more often. If 10,000 of the 350,000-plus North American churches, through their denominations or networks, linked to one sister church in a troubled region in Central America, the long-term results could be spectacular. People would witness the power of the gospel in bringing peace and a measure of prosperity to these areas, as well as addressing a serious international crisis.
Bruce Wydick is professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of The Taste of Many Mountains, a novel about the lives of coffee growers in Guatemala, Thomas Nelson (2014). Follow him on his blog at AcrossTwoWorlds.net and on Twitter at @BruceWydick.