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The new administration has emphasized the need to curb security threats from Latin America: bad hombres, rapist Mexicans, and the wall are among the wrenching rhetorical symbols that President Trump has used to signal his goals. Five data points highlight the challenges the administration will face as it moves to secure the southern border.
- Crime directly consumes 3.55 percent of GDP in Latin America, on average. This is about twice the average cost in developed nations, and exceeds the annual income of the bottom 30 percent of the regional population. Corruption may consume an additional 3 percent of GDP, on average, with illicit financial outflows in some countries suggesting even higher costs.
- Impunity reigns. Latin American nations are near the top of a global impunity index, with Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador among the world’s worst performers. The practical implications are significant: 9 out of 10 murders go unresolved in a region that is among the world’s most violent.
- Astounding levels of violence drive migration. A survey of Central American migrants conducted last year by the Inter-American Dialogue found that violence was the second major reason given for the decision to migrate. No wonder, when Latin American homicide rates are four times higher than the global average. The most common trigger for migration, the search for economic opportunities, may also be influenced by the brake crime puts on local economies.
- In 2014, the U.S. had 55 million self-identified Hispanics or Latinos (about 17 percent of the population). Of these, just over a third – 19.4 million – were immigrants.
- Latin American remittances surpassed $70 billion in 2016, continuing an upward trend in which remittances to Latin America have more than doubled over the past fifteen years. According to a study of last year’s remittances, “[t]he growth in remittances to Central America…is mostly associated with continued insecurity in the region that is driving people out.”
These five data points suggest that untangling the U.S. from Latin America will be fraught with difficulty. The push factors that drive migratory flows – crime, corruption, violence, and impunity – are tangled up with the pull factors that attract them to the U.S.– family ties and economic opportunity – in ways that are not easily undone.
The five data points further suggest a strictly hardline approach at the border will be self-defeating. Crime and corruption together consume roughly 6.5 percent of Latin American GDP, driven in no small part by U.S. demand for narcotics and its various knock-on effects: organized crime, violence, and a weak rule of law. The fact that the costs of crime and corruption exceed remittances in most countries in the region suggests that an effective policy set to tackle threats from the southern border must at the very least include rule of law development assistance, aimed at tackling local “push” factors that drive violence and incentivize migration. If, as a consequence of administration policies, remittances were to decline and hundreds of thousands of migrants were blocked or sent home, the economic conditions in much of Latin America – and particularly in those countries closest to the U.S. southern border – would worsen considerably, deepening the “push” factors that drive migration. Both remittances and migratory flows would be driven underground: literally, through border tunnels, and figuratively, through illicit money laundering and organized migrant smuggling. The implications for border security would be profound.