Central Americans hop on a freight train in Ciudad Ixtepec, Mexico, on July 15, 2008. The trains are nicknamed "La Bestia" — the Beast — and will take them on a perilous journey 1,500 miles north to the U.S.-Mexican border. Photo by: Peter Haden / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — Mexico has been a recipient of international development assistance for decades, but in recent years the country has been working to provide similar help to its neighbors in Central America, with the goal of stemming migration.

Lack of economic opportunity, widespread violence, and weak institutions have led hundreds of thousands of people in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to migrate north. While more migrants and asylum-seekers are now staying in Mexico than in previous years, most are still trying to reach the United States.

Devex is exploring the role of aid in the Central American migrant and refugee crisis. Read more from the series:

'Play the long game:' US must continue aid in Central America, analysts say

UN, international NGOs boost Central America presence amid migrant crisis

The Mexican government sees its development assistance through the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation, or AMEXCID, as a way to discourage migration by improving conditions on the ground in Central American countries. The country has made strides in securing its southern border, but people still manage to cross by the thousand.

According to the interior ministry, Mexico deported 77,371 people who had come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in 2017. The country, which has economic and development challenges of its own, struggles to provide for this migrant and refugee population; and some Mexicans fear Central Americans will take their jobs.

“We are firm believers that such issues must be tackled not only by cooperation in migration and security, but also by cooperation in development, and in particular areas which will provide opportunities for people who don’t have other options other than to migrate,” AMEXCID Executive Director Augustín García-López told Devex. “We have a holistic development approach to that phenomenon.”

AMEXCID was created in 2011, when the Mexican congress passed the international cooperation for development law, championed by Senator Rosario Green, who in the ‘90s had been Mexico’s first female foreign affairs secretary. By law, the organization’s head is appointed by the president and its budget — which includes funds for multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization — is approved by congress.

“They have developed from scratch, basically … They had to build a development agency where none existed before,” said Tony Wayne, who was U.S. ambassador to Mexico when AMEXCID was created. “This was a big step for them to start developing. Not surprisingly, it’s taken them a little while to get going.”

He said it makes sense for Mexico to be investing in addressing root causes of migration in Central America, because continued instability in the region has a domestic impact.

“Mexico is the first country to get the spillover from problems in the Northern Triangle. The migrants who head out might think they’re heading to the United States, but they first have to go through Mexico,” Wayne said. “For the development program, I think it’s largely ‘can we help them develop sufficient economic activity to help keep people happy, prosperous, and staying in their home countries?’”

A regional focus

AMEXCID works in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, and conducts bilateral, trilateral, and regional cooperation aimed at “turning development challenges into opportunities.” García-López said AMEXCID aims to create an environment where the private sector can thrive and provide productive options for citizens in their home countries.

“There’s … a hope on part of the United States that Mexico would be more engaged on these kinds of issues in Central America,” said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center. “Mexico, from time to time, has expressed interest in doing it, but in actual fact, other than their diplomatic efforts — which are not insignificant — they have not put much money into programming the way USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] or DFID [United Kingdom Department for International Development] does.”

The most recent year for which Mexico has made public its development budget is 2014, which saw the country give $288 million. According to the OECD’s Development Cooperation Directorate, at least $169 million counts as development cooperation under that organization’s definitions.

Much of what Mexico has to offer comes in the form of technical assistance in a variety of sectors. AMEXCID’s bilateral projects in Central America typically last two years, with Mexican staff focusing on capacity building and sharing lessons learned. Cooperation takes place in agriculture, environmental sustainability and climate change, and strengthening governance and public management.

AMEXCID currently has 21 bilateral projects in Guatemala, 17 in El Salvador, and 10 in Honduras, the three Northern Triangle countries where conditions have driven particularly large numbers of people to migrate. It also has 12 projects in Nicaragua, 10 in Belize, nine in Panama and seven in Costa Rica.

“We are firm believers that such issues must be tackled not only by cooperation in migration and security, but also by cooperation in development, and in particular areas which will provide opportunities for people who don’t have other options other than to migrate.”

— Augustín García-López,  AMEXCID executive director

“When it comes to migration, I think that what is important, firstly, is the cooperation with the countries in the northern part of Central America aimed at reducing the [migrant] flows, because we want migration to be an option and not a necessity,” AMEXCID Undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean Luis Alfonso de Alba told Devex. “Addressing the root causes for migration, I think, will be a service to all of us, including the migrants, so they don’t take the risk of traveling and being forced to leave their countries.”

Infrastructure, education, humanitarian, and technical assistance

The Yucatan Fund is AMEXCID’s financial instrument to support infrastructure projects centered around connectivity and economic development. According to García-López, the Yucatan Fund has dispersed $100 million since 2012. Those have included highway projects in Honduras and one on the border of El Salvador and Guatemala, a multicultural school in Belize, and a community sports complex.

With six projects, Germany is AMEXCID’s largest trilateral partner country. The Mexican agency also works with NGOs and educational institutions, which conduct training programs and exchanges for students from other countries.  

One trilateral program in partnership with a Mexican university is focused on vulnerable youth living in dangerous countries. They receive scholarships to study in a technical program for three years to acquire trade skills.

“They can learn a trade and then ... be linked to the private sector so they will eventually get a job in the area. Maybe not in their own country that continues to be dangerous for them, but in another country where you have these private sector companies that will be linked to these scholarships,” García-López said. “We think we are fostering these ways of solving what apparently can be vicious circles [of unemployment].”

There are also educational programs aimed at allowing students from Central America to complete postgraduate studies at Mexican universities.

AMEXCID also provides humanitarian and technical assistance following natural disasters, such as the recent volcano eruption in Guatemala. The Mexican Ministry of Health sent three mobile clinics to the affected area to treat patients, including those with severe burns. Some patients had conditions too serious to be treated at the mobile facilities, so they were brought to Mexico for treatment at a specialized burn center.

The region also reciprocates when Mexico experiences natural disasters: Honduras sent search and rescue teams following a recent earthquake in Mexico.

Looking inward — and onward

AMEXCID said its activities providing technical assistance to others in the region to help promote stability and prosperity is a point of pride for the country. But like in many other nations, foreign assistance can be controversial, particularly in a place like Mexico that has economic and development challenges of its own.

“We struggle a lot also to try to show to politicians and to our own population in our own country … how important it is to be able to cooperate” on development, García-López said. “There was a lot of views from the government that we have so many problems in terms of inequality … that we should cater to our poor, to our programs, and not send energy and financial resources to other countries.”

But that attitude has slowly shifted, he said.

“More and more, it has been countered by the fact that we realized that we are part of a global society, that we realized that we can only receive solidarity if we give solidarity to our neighbors as well. It is very important for the global community for Mexico to be part of that,” García-López said. “This is a linkage where of course you have to foster your own development but you [also] have to help with your knowledge and financial resources.”

The future of this cooperation is uncertain as Mexico will usher its newly elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador into office in December. Olson said that with a Mexican history of nonintervention, AMLO — as the new leader is known — will have to determine how he wants to approach challenges with both his southern and northern neighbors.

“He’s talked about: ‘We don’t want to criticize others or intervene, because we don’t want them intervening in Mexico.’ This has been the long tradition of Mexican foreign policy,” Olson said.

“There may be some degree of narrow self-interest when it comes to Central America, but again, I don’t know that AMLO is going to be inclined to be pushed around by the United States on the migration issue. Hard to know.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.