Markos Kounalakis: Exporting guns and gangs to Central America, and importing victims

The balance of trade in misery is hard to measure. The United States is importing inordinate suffering with the increasing numbers of victims fleeing Central American violence. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have recently entered the U.S. and sparked the latest immigration crisis.

On the export side, guns and gangs are mainly U.S. products that infect Central American societies and are to blame for much of the extreme violence and corruption down south. The exported means of violence, combined with hopeless economies, drive kids into the arms of dangerous mercenary escort “coyotes” and their promise to lead them north to safety and opportunity.

In this perverse trade regime, the two-way illegal flow of people and contraband across borders causes untold suffering, a growing humanitarian crisis and governing challenges for countries both north and south.

Nobody wins in this trade game, but the United States can do something about its side of the equation.

Start with drugs. Much of the ultra-violent organized criminal activity in Central America is rooted in the illegal drug trade that targets U.S. markets. Guns and gangs proliferate in the existing structure. Washington mainly tries to solve the problem by disrupting the supply chain, favoring drug interdiction and eradication. Central American leaders, however, regularly point out that the problem is not one of supply, but of demand. As Mexico’s previous president, Felipe Calderón, reflected in 2012: “If the demand for drugs were to decrease in the U.S., we would indeed have fewer problems.”

The south-of-the-border perspective is that demand for illegal narcotics could be dramatically reduced by U.S. drug decriminalization. Proponents of this approach say treating addiction and abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal issue in the United States would undermine both illegal narcotics traffickers’ markets and a dominant corrupting influence in Central America.

Fast-tracking drug decriminalization is a long-term solution to the current pressures on politicians and borders. But there are also short-term solutions with greater efficacy than bigger fences, increased troops, more effective surveillance drones and a faster judicial process. These solutions require radically increased international cooperation, diplomatic collaboration and systemic changes in the United States and Central America.

First, in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, start with a concerted and materially supported effort to rein in weapons, round up gangsters and wrangle corrupt police and political officials. Only a sincere and effective campaign to minimize the effects of open illegality – and the fear and cynicism it breeds – will have any effect on the communities and individuals who fall victim to systemic corruption and brutality.

These problems and conditions are open and apparent to anyone paying attention. While I was studying Spanish and traveling throughout Guatemala in the mid-1990s, handguns seemed as common as credit cards. ATMs had metal detectors and armed guards – who sometimes doubled as criminal apprentices. The population’s fear was palpable. Corrupted law enforcement in Central America was a part of the problem then and remains so now. That might explain why Honduras today has the world’s highest murder rate.

The United States can help Central American law enforcement get further trained and better paid. Joint investigations could lead to punishment of corrupt actors, building trust in Central American institutions and authority. When officials are on the take, the fabric of society always gives.

Second, the United States should work to curtail the free flow of weaponry to the south. A 2013 Wilson Center study on weapons trafficking to Mexico and Guatemala found that “U.S. origin firearms appear to account for a significant part” of illicit weaponry in the region. Assault-type weapons follow the same path south that illicit drugs follow north. Stem the flow of weapons to Central American criminals, and their drug enterprises get further proscribed.

Some efforts, like the Internet-based U.S. “e-Trace” system, help track down illegal weapons in Central America, but have been minimally effective. International gun interdiction could be stepped up in accord with current U.S. laws; the Second Amendment does not protect well-armed militias across the border.

Third, the California corrections system has bred a pernicious international problem. Prisons have inadvertently grown to become networking institutions, training camps and finishing schools for gangs of all stripes. The Associated Press noted the development of “an unfortunate U.S. export to Central America: street gangs.”

Nearly a decade ago, Foreign Affairs magazine identified the same gang problem, declaring that Washington had “virtually ignored a dangerous phenomenon close to home.” Since then, in 2012, the American-born street gang Mara Salvatrucha was labeled a transnational criminal organization. What is further needed is a multinational and an in-prison approach that disrupts the network, inhibits the training and tightly manages the deportation of these terror gangs.

Guns, gangs and drugs need to be directly dealt with as a part of the equation for any real and lasting solutions to the border crisis. It is time to do a better and more honest reckoning of the real costs of U.S. exports and imports where misery defines a part of the bottom line. After all, victims count.