How will the Trump administration handle Central America’s Northern Triangle?

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This Thursday and Friday, leaders from the United States, Mexico, and three Central American countries are convening in Miami for the “Conference on Prosperity and Security.” In a rare show of cooperation in these tense times, the U.S. and Mexico are co-hosting the conference in order to pretend they are interested in dealing with regional problems together.

In attendance are U.S. vice-president Mike Pence along with other members of president Donald Trump’s cabinet, two members of Mexican president’s Enrique Peña Nieto’s cabinet, and the presidents of the nations that comprise the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Hanging over the meeting like dark storm clouds are the statements Trump has made about illegal immigrants from Latin America during his successful campaign for the presidency, and the harsh policies his administration has implemented to deport Mexicans and Central Americans living and working in the U.S. illegally.

See VP Pence’s full remarks here.

Officially, the high-level meeting aims at coordinating the actions of the five countries, concerning three main subjects: economic development, drug trafficking, and immigration. A big question is to what degree the Trump team plans to continue the course set by the Alliance for Prosperity (known as the APP), a policy initiative put together in 2014 as a collaborative effort between the Obama administration (through the International Development Bank) and the Northern Triangle countries.

The APP was a response to the surprising and unprecedented influx of unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle who made their way through Mexico to the U.S.’s southern border. The wave of children captured the attention of the world, prompting long-overdue international action. The APP sought to make illegal immigration more difficult by increasing security along the Guatemala-Mexico border. It also pledged billions of dollars in aid to the Northern Triangle, primarily in order to attract foreign investment to the region. So far, it has been mostly unsuccessful, as the number of Central American migrants to the U.S. rose significantly in the 2014-2016 period.

By contrast, in just the first few months since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the number of migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has plummeted by as much as 60%. Trumps hard tone and iron-fisted enforcement seems to be working. At the same time, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for next year cuts aid to the Northern Triangle countries by up to 40%, while it increases spending on border security and counter-narcotics activities. In its dealings with its southern neighbors, the Department of Homeland Security has taken over for the State Department as the primary effector of foreign policy.

The leaders of the Northern Triangle have taken different approaches to dealing with Trump. Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén made clear as soon as Trump’s victory was announced that his country “promotes the rights of all people to migration” and “will continue to defend the rights of migrants living in the United States.” Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández made similar statements last November, but in the last few months has met twice with U.S. officials and has declared his optimism that relations between the two countries will improve.

Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala, is perhaps the most likely to bond with the new U.S. president. Morales has been called “Guatemala’s Donald Trump” because he won his country’s higher office as an outsider. For many years he has been a popular comedian and television personality, and came to office having never served in any government post. He made headlines during the U.S. electoral campaign when he jokingly offered “cheap labor” to Trump for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But he has also warned Trump not to simply expel the many thousands of Guatemala seeking work in the north.

So far most of the discussion has revolved around the status of Central Americans living and working in the United States. But there is fear in Central America of a return to the time of direct U.S. intervention, which many blame for horrific violence and American support for corrupt and bloodthirsty dictators. If the Trump administration is serious about dealing with the causes of immigration at their roots, and is not willing to provide aid, then the prospect of military intervention becomes more ominous. The fact that relations between the U.S. and Mexico are currently very shaky could mean that the Trump administration will decide to take matters into its own (military) hands.

There were plenty of flaws in the Obama administration’s policies towards immigration, like drug violence in Central America. At best, they were ineffective. At worse, they contributed to an increase in violence and insecurity. It seems highly unlikely that Donald Trump will suddenly look at long-proposed initiatives such as decriminalization of drugs. Central American migration to the U.S. has declined because of fear of Trump. But if violence surges due to American interventionism and militarism, it will spike up again in the future.

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