Many of the immigrant children now crossing the U.S.-Mexico border come from Central America, escaping violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. To find out more about the unstable conditions in those countries, Robert Siegel speaks with Joy Olson, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We wanted to take a moment to better understand where these young migrants are coming from in Central America. Most commonly we hear about Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. So what are the political and economic dynamics at work in those countries? Well, Joy Olson joins me now in the studios to talk about that. She's executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. Welcome.
JOY OLSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Let's quickly first tick through the political situations in each of those three Central American countries. Who's in charge and how functional are their governments?
OLSON: The region was most known during the 1980s for wars. There were civil wars in both Guatemala and El Salvador. There was never a civil war in Honduras. Since that time, each of the countries has democratically-elected governments - some on the right, some on the left. But what you've seen over time is that the region was pretty debilitated after the war years. Institutions needed to be rebuilt and developed.
SIEGEL: We hear so much about the violence that is plaguing the towns and neighborhoods where these kids are coming from. Are there police forces in these countries that somebody could count on to protect them from gangs?
OLSON: They all technically have police forces but the police forces don't function very well. Corruption is a huge problem. And the justice systems don't function very well either. So prosecution rates are incredibly low.
SIEGEL: Does the United States aid these countries and aid their police forces? Do we give them money to police the streets?
OLSON: Well, the U.S. spent billions of dollars, literally, in Central America during the war years. And after the wars there was an attempt to restructure police in some places. But the U.S. has dedicated a lot of time and resources to vetted units - finding specific people who are clean, putting them in the unit all on their own where they operate separately and might be able to investigate a drug crime, for example. Those units operate within a corrupt structure. And the units either don't stay clean and then they have to be replaced over and over again. Or the fact that you have a one functioning good unit doesn't filter down to what happens at the community level.
SIEGEL: And how would you describe the economic or social conditions that might be driving either parents to send their kids to the U.S. or, in some cases, families to send children to connect with a parent in the U.S.?
OLSON: Poverty rates are very high. There's a great expanse between the rich and the poor. There is not a huge middle class in any of the three countries. But Central America's been poor for a long time, and violence right now at the community level is a huge factor.
SIEGEL: The disparaging name for these countries decades ago was - they would be called banana republics, which was both a political but also described what their economies were all about. Are they agricultural exporting countries still?
OLSON: Agriculture is still significant for all three countries - very much so. And one of the problems right now is that coffee, for example, is a huge export crop in Central America. And the coffee crop has been devastated this past year by a plague. So if the cash crop is wiped out, your principal access to cash is gone.
SIEGEL: Honduras I have read has the - is it the world's highest murder rate for a country that's not at war?
SIEGEL: How dangerous is it in Honduras?
OLSON: It's extremely dangerous in Honduras. And if you're a wealthy person in any of these countries - in Honduras, for example - you're able to buy your own security. Security's been privatized to a great extent. If you're talking about being in a poor community where many of the people who are migrating here right now are from, it's a real different story. And there, it's not just violence, it's extortion which is an enormous problem at the moment.
SIEGEL: The problems you're describing don't sound amenable to the kind of quick solutions that would make life that much better for kids who've come just across the border. They'd go back and everything would be OK because an aide package had been put together or there'd been some new commitment to cleaning up one of these countries.
OLSON: There are no quick fixes here. It's one reason why I'm a little bit disturbed at what we're hearing coming out of Congress right now because the provisions that the Houses are looking at right now have to do with heavy-duty with border security. And if you think about it, if you've got a bunch of children crossing the border and turning themselves into the Border Patrol, increasing border security doesn't really deal with that problem. We have to keep thinking about what these kids go back to. And we have to commit for the long term.
SIEGEL: Joy Olson. Thank you very much for talking with us today.
OLSON: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Joy Olson is executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.