Poverty and hopes for a better life are common explanations for why tens of thousands of so-called “border kids” are arriving in the United States this year. Another reason, says Army Gen. Charles Jacoby, who heads U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, is that they’re fleeing gangs in Central America that deal in drugs, money and guns.
"I really think the face of this story is the risk the kids are at throughout the process," Jacoby says. "As we think our way through how to solve this complicated problem, keeping them foremost in mind is important."
Jacoby's command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, is responsible for securing the nation’s borders from attack and responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes.
At least 62,000 unaccompanied children have come to the United States since last fall, more than twice the number that came the previous year.
Jacoby says the parentless children arriving at the border are not trying to evade law enforcement authorities. Instead, they're seeking legal entry into the U.S. He says they endure a journey through difficult terrain that's rife with gang activity because their parents think they'll be safer once they reach the U.S.
The children are coming from various Central American countries including Honduras, a country for which the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning.
"The government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance," the warning states, continuing:
In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras. The Honduran government is still in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions. Transnational criminal organizations also conduct narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout the country, using violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and other large cities, are known to commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape and other aggravated assaults.
Jacoby says that large criminal organizations exert influence even beyond national borders, acting to “whisk away governance through violence” in Central America, creating more room for criminals to operate. He says the lawlessness could spawn “hybrid” organizations that deal in terrorism, posing a threat to U.S. national security.
“I think that putting pressure on these criminal organization networks is a critical task for our future security,” he says, adding more international cooperation and focus on the situation is needed.
Children, he adds, are likely being moved towards the border by low level gang members for part of their journey, particularly in Mexico as they approach Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
“The last tactical mile is probably the same guys that are helping get drugs across, money across, get weapons across,” Jacoby says.
Jacoby adds that efforts to strengthen security on the border may not improve the conditions that are leading children to flock to the United States.
“I can understand the impulse to get some folks out there, but I hope we transition to real problem solving,” he says.