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CARDENAS: To secure Southern Border, U.S. must also help secure Central America

** FILE ** In this Thursday, April 17, 2014, photo, immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally sit in a group after U.S. Border Patrol agents detained at least 80  immigrants who'd been living in a makeshift encampment in suburban McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez)** FILE ** In this Thursday, April 17, 2014, photo, immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally sit in a group after U.S. Border Patrol agents detained at least 80 immigrants who’d been living in a makeshift encampment in suburban McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Gabe Hernandez)
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President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding to cope with the humanitarian crisis along our southern border, which has been besieged by a surge in unaccompanied minors and thousands more trying to enter the United States from Central America through Mexico.

Clearly, the administration is scrambling to undo the damage caused in part by its own rhetoric and unilateral actions on immigration that, whether intentional or not, sent the calamitous message to desperate families across the region that if you want to get to the United States, then now is the time to come, because some sort of legal status awaits them.

Yet, notwithstanding the considerable sum of money requested from Congress, the administration's current plan is merely stop-gap. It does nothing to address the primary driver of the problem: the escalating criminality in the region — most of it fueled by drug trafficking to the United States — that is undermining democratic institutions, rule of law, economic opportunity, and public safety in Central America.

The statistics are grim. The region is now considered the most violent non-war zone in the world, with a homicide rate more than four times the global average. Robberies, extortion, kidnappings, and human trafficking are all up. This touches the average citizen through rising gang activity and violence. Many being interviewed at the border say they fled because of gang extortion and forced recruitment of children.

Central America has unfortunately found itself literally caught between two larger countries — Mexico and Colombia — that have conducted their own major crackdowns on transnational criminal organizations, forcing the latter to find more permissive environments to ply their nefarious trade. Local governments, plagued by weak institutions and poorly trained law enforcement, have proven no match for these criminal organizations, aided and abetted as they are by local gangs.

The extraordinary strength and reach of the criminal organizations was detailed in testimony before the U.S. Senate earlier this year by Gen. John Kelly of Southcom, who said these networks move tons of drugs, thousands of people, and countless weapons "with an efficiency, payload, and gross profit any global transportation company would envy."

Assassinations, executions, and massacres are their stock in trade, and with their staggering revenues and advanced weaponry are easily able to outspend and outgun many governments. He added, their profits allow them to "spread corruption and fear and undermine support for legitimate governments."

Targeting these criminal networks and strengthening the capacities of regional governments to counter the threat are imperatives to ameliorating the "push factors" that are driving the region's citizens to emigrate. What is needed is a presidential signature initiative along the lines of the Reagan administration's approach to Central America in the 1980s, when regional stability was threatened by Soviet and Cuban-sponsored subversion.

Today, we need to provide the resources, training, and institution strengthening and rally regional political will to take on the criminal networks. Without it, more fencing and border patrol agents will simply prove incapable of ultimately securing the border.

This is not just an issue of Central America security, but of U.S. security. The criminal networks can move anything through their smuggling pipelines, right up to the U.S. border. They can be exploited by anyone looking to do the U.S. harm. All it takes is one corrupt official to procure official documents such as visas or citizenship papers and facilitate travel of dangerous aliens.

Clearly, the programs the administration has in place to support Central American security are not enough — as dramatically evidenced by the number of its citizens swarming the border at present. Let's hope it now recognizes the connection between a secure border and helping our neighbors confront the insecurity and lost economic opportunities that are compelling their citizens to migrate.

Only sustained U.S. commitment to regional institution building and law enforcement training can diminish the opportunities for criminal organizations to thrive and to allow democratically elected authorities to govern. In the short-term, the imperative is establishing order, and that means reducing the capacity and incentives of criminal actors to confront and subvert the state.

Today, our friends in Central America are confronting a crisis every bit as dangerous to their stability as the threats in the early 1980s. The difference then was an administration that was willing to step to the plate. There is still time for the current administration to get more engaged. Let's hope it is not too late.

Jose R. Cardenas is a former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.

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