Tuesday, May 14, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Years ago, when Donald Trump’s presidential bid was taking off, I asked him whether his attitudes toward free trade and border security might make matters worse for Mexico — and hence for the U.S., too.
“I don’t care about Mexico, honestly,” he replied. “I really don’t care about Mexico.”
What we’re seeing now are the consequences of the same squalid indifference applied to points farther south.
The most extraordinary — and extraordinarily brave — work of journalism I’ve read in recent weeks is Azam Ahmed’s May 4 account in The Times of the weeks he and photographer Tyler Hicks spent in a gangland neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, a city in Honduras where the homicide rate is approximately 13 times the global average.
It’s a story about fear.
Fear of MS-13 members whistling at dusk, a taunting reminder that they were watching and waiting, armed and pitiless. Fear of the rival 18th Street gang, looking to make brutal examples of young men who had broken from its ranks. Fear of being snatched off the street to be tortured, raped and killed, in plain view of neighbors mortally afraid to speak out.
To read Ahmed’s story is to understand the crisis at the border. Those Central American caravans, about which Trump tries to inspire so much panic and bigotry? They are the caravans of the terrorized and desperate. The MS-13 killers supposedly marching toward our streets like some barbaric horde? We are doing more to harm their innocent victims than we are doing to defeat their victimizers.
Many people are generally aware of the crime wave sweeping Latin America and the Caribbean. Few have accurately reckoned the scale: more than 2.5 million people murdered this century — “more people,” Ahmed notes, “than the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen combined.”
Another remarkable fact: The United States has not had an ambassador in Honduras for nearly two years.
In this case, the fault does not lie strictly with the Trump administration, which had nominated career diplomat Francisco Palmieri to the job, but with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who blocked Palmieri’s appointment because he wants a political appointee. But the absence of an ambassador reflects the administration’s broader failure to have anything resembling a policy anywhere in Latin America, other than for Venezuela.
If anything, we have an anti-policy. As of March, the State Department has been carrying out Trump’s instructions to cease foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the Northern Triangle that has some of the worst violence and the highest migration rates.
Trump’s reasoning seems to be that the three countries haven’t done enough to stem the exodus. Maybe so. What the president hasn’t explained is how depriving quasi-failed states of assistance will help them do better by us.
Then again, Trump’s approach to Central America is an excellent illustration of the ways in which “America First” fails America.
If the administration is not going to have a realistic strategy for defeating gangs in the Northern Triangle — whether out of an ideological aversion for nation-building, stinginess with foreign aid or mere indifference — it will need a realistic strategy for dealing with the inevitable fallout. If it doesn’t have that, as we still don’t, we’ll have exactly the kind of crisis at the border that Trump endlessly bemoans and which he is now doing so much to worsen.
In other words, if we’re not going to solve or at least try to mitigate problems over there, we will have to confront them over here. Previous presidents have made similar mistakes: Barack Obama’s ill-judged military exit from Iraq in 2011 created the conditions in which the Islamic State metastasized three years later (forcing our return). But it’s difficult to think of any president as eager as Trump to cut off his nose to spite his own face — not that there’s much face left to save at this point.
There are better options. Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush invested some $10 billion in counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts to rescue Colombia from the grip of jungle guerrillas and drug lords. The plan was expensive, took a decade, involved the limited deployment of U.S. troops and was widely mocked.
Yet it worked. Colombia is South America’s great turnaround story. And nobody today worries about a Colombian migration crisis.
It’s always possible that Trump knows all this — and rejects it precisely because it stands a reasonable chance of eventually fixing the very problem that was central to his election and on which he intends to campaign for the next 18 months. Demagogues need bugaboos, and MS-13 and other assorted Latin American gangsters are the perfect ones for him.
But whether he gets that or not, it behooves Americans to know that the crisis at our border has a source, and that Trump continues to inflame it. The answer isn’t a big beautiful wall. It’s a real foreign policy. We used to know how to craft one.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.