President Trump is absolutely right: We are confronting a national emergency, and we must act. But it’s not our national emergency.
It is the absolute life or death emergency of our neighboring families who are being terrorized by murderous gangs in the failed nations of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle - El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Gangsters and the drug cartels that run them, having bought off and scared off top officials and local police, are extorting and murdering our southern neighbors. And they’re getting away with their terror.
We need to help ourselves by helping our neighbors. We cannot just wall ourselves off from reality.
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In 2015, El Salvador became the world’s most violent country not at war, with 103 homicides per 100,000 people, edging past Honduras, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. In 2017, El Salvador’s murder rate declined a bit to 81, but homicides in all three Northern Triangle countries are significantly higher than in its Central American neighbors.
No wonder families are grabbing their children and fleeing for their lives. On TV news, a woman who fled El Salvador with several small children recently told her terrifying story: She and her husband ran a small taco cafe - until her husband was murdered after refusing to pay gangsters the “protection” money they demanded.
When she tried to run the cafe alone, the gangsters threatened her: pay protection money or she'll get what her husband got. She fled in terror with her children, joining one of those caravans our president keeps frightening us about.
I began asking people I know, who came here from those Northern Triangle countries, about her story. Every person responded by sharing similar stories about folks they knew back home.
If those gangs now terrorizing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were called al-Qaida or ISIS, you know what our president and his political minions would be saying and doing.
They’d be denouncing the terrorists. Some would even be talking about sending troops to safeguard our homeland by dealing with the problem at its source.
But these murderous gangs are called MS-13 and Barrio 18. And ever since Trump first glided down his golden escalator and into our presidential campaign, he cleverly realized he could get elected by frightening us with tall tales about the horrible dangers posed by those invading immigrants (who of course look nothing like his ancestors who once fled here from Germany).
None of this has turned out the way our leaders envisioned a generation ago. In 1961, America’s new young president, John F. Kennedy, inspired us with a bold plan that he called the Alliance for Progress. He visualized a U.S. major effort of aid and expertise to help Latin America develop something we had and they didn’t: a robust middle class.
The Kremlin’s shiny new spearhead – Fidel Castro’s Cuba – was already fomenting communist revolution through Latin America, where populations were poor and ruling elites were rich. Kennedy hoped to foster Latin American middle classes that cherished democracy.
While JFK’s program had its shortcomings, all U.S. presidents from both parties have pursued those goals since.
But 28 years ago, a much-celebrated event on the other side of the planet – the collapse of the Soviet Union – generated an unanticipated side effect that is still rippling through the Americas.
Bernard Aronson, the highly praised former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, recalled one of the most unforeseen of all the consequences of that stunning event.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a lot of the urgency about Latin America seemed to disappear,” Aronson told me in an interview. “Our government could only do a certain amount of things at a time. And urgency and concern about Central America faded to the background.”
Aronson came back to play an important role as Barack Obama’s special envoy who brokered the peace deal that ended Colombia’s decades of drug-trade guerilla warfare.
“My hope was that the era of coups would be long over,” he said. “I don’t think any of us foresaw the crisis we see today in Central America.”
One of the lessons we surely ought to have learned is that we cannot just wish away today’s problem - or wall ourselves off from it.
Homeowners surely get it: When a big leak starts flooding your basement, the solution isn’t to just build a wall at the foot of your basement stairs. You’ve got to fix the leak at its source. Nothing else will do.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.