The Root Causes Strategy

Violence, lack of food, corruption, and poor governance intersect to drive migrants from Central America to the United States. These are compounded by Covid-19 and the November 2020 hurricanes. When people feel safer and more food secure, and have confidence in their governments to function effectively and fairly, the level of migration will decrease. This is the logic behind the “root causes” strategy.

Demand for illegal drugs in the United States is a key contributor to violence in the region, as drug traffickers bring cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. market. Criminal gangs exert control in many localities, engaged in extortion and violence to maintain their power. Internationally backed bodies that made strides against government corruption, such as CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras, were terminated with little protest from the U.S.

Food insecurity has increased in the region, particularly in the Dry Corridor, with a drought in 2014 followed by multiple years of low and unreliable rainfall. My research shows that food insecurity and violence work together to drive migrants to the U.S. border.

An effective root causes strategy will simultaneously pursue multiple paths with different time horizons. Most immediately, emergency relief is needed for those who lost everything in the November hurricanes. Without hope that assistance will allow them to survive and rebuild, people who were not planning to migrate will feel forced to leave.

A second leg of the U.S. response should target rural food security. International groups have assessed the agricultural sector and can provide advice on adopting climate-resilient crops and improving agricultural techniques. With funding and local partnerships to help devise effective strategies for change, hope of reliable food production will decrease the need to migrate.

The third piece of the strategy will address violence, corruption and poor governance. This is the most difficult and has the longest time horizon for impact. In addition to funding for anti-violence programs and civil society, it requires diplomatic pressure and political will to reinvigorate international efforts to fight corruption and develop a regional response to international criminal groups.

The U.S. government needs to abandon approaches that have been ineffective in the past and invest for the greatest impact. This means working with local partners on aid-financed projects and relying less on U.S.-based contractors. Aid programs require local expertise to be effective, and using local partners can build capacity within societies that will remain after aid programs are finished.

Sarah Bermeo, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University