Can we achieve security through development aid? The case of the US and Mexico

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Many of us today believe that development aid is an honourable pursuit stemming from pure intentions, and I will admit: that may very well be the case. But I would like to introduce the (potentially cynical) idea that development idea has been instrumentalised by countries for reasons that are not so much related to development but far more related to internal security. For instance, a country may represent the foreign other as an inferior in need of development aid, but also as a dangerous other that must be kept at a distance. These two realities coexist in what geography scholars call a Security-Development nexus, whereby a country strategically provides development aid to a region in order to reduce its emigration flows. According to this theory, the West is investing in poverty reduction in countries that are seen as systematically violent in order to protect itself against the perceived dangers of migration.1 In a context of globalized trade, communication and transportation, security elsewhere is seen as synonymous with security at home. In the US in particular, immigration from Central America has been rife in this “securitisation” discourse firstly because of the perception that Latinx migrants are the cause of rising crime rates in the US, and secondly because of the perception that violence and unemployment are factors pushing Central Americans to immigrate to the US. But in recent years, this reasoning has been surprisingly upended as Trump announced the end of American assistance to countries like Mexico and Guatemala. So we are left asking: why this change of foreign policy? And what does it mean for the social fabric of American society and the perception of the Latinx migrant?

US discourses of securitisation against Central American migrants

Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiment was epitomised by his declaration of a national emergency, which enabled him to seize the funds needed for the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico bborder. His recourse to a physical barrier with Mexico is not only shocking because of its literal take on migration control, but also because it goes against the history in American foreign policy, which is partly anchored in “securitisation” theory. This theory contends that, by geographically locating sources of violence, governments are able to target communities as threats to the nation by defining a link between “otherness” and territory. This theory also elucidates the current US administration’s approach to foreign policy and migration which relies on the creation of an “us” through its opposition to an “other” (currently, the Central American migrant). For instance, in a 2018 address, Trump refered to “tremendous numbers of MS-13 gangs that illegally come into our country” as an influx of “deadly narcotics” that poses “unacceptable dangers to the entire nation.” 

Borrowing from Edward Said’s Orientalism allows us to see how the US has developed a political dichotomy of “us” versus “them” by constructing an image of the central American migrant as a foreign inferior4. Within the political rhetoric of the US, this has been achieved by portraying the Latinx community as a source of violence. When announcing his presidential bid, Donald Trump stated: “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Soon after, Gallup polls confirmed that almost half of Americans agreed that immigrants are more likely to commit a crime, proving that the current administration reflects a commonly felt sentiment, but also that it perpetuates a demonisation of the Latinx migrant, which allows it to rally the American population around a cultural identity. By using phrases like “immigration is destroying the fabric of our country,” Trump enhances the concept of a duality between “us” and “them”, in which “they” are a threat not only to “us” but to the societal bonds that hold this “us” together.

This construction of the “other” is not only created by political rhetoric but is also maintained by popular culture in the US; “Across a decade of studies, characterisations (of latinos) featured images of poor and uneducated Latinos commonly depicted as criminals”5. This stereotype of violence was further consolidated in the marrow of US society in 2014 when an asylum-seeking Guatemalan woman demanded asylum to the US on the grounds of needing refuge from her violent husband6. Her lawyers argued that a generalised ‘culture of domestic abuse in Central America’ is a legitimate category of persecution for which women may demand asylum in the US. While the case should be commended for potentially saving the life of a Guatemalan woman by granting her asylum, it also did the disservice of publicly and formally characterizing Central America as a “violent” place for women: a rhetoric which strengthens Trump’s representation of the Latinx immigrant as a dangerous criminal. The literature on US-Mexico migration generally disproves the veracity of the ‘violent Latinx immigrant’ stereotype. While “research shows that people are afraid of immigrants because they think immigrants are a threat to their safety… quantitative research has consistently shown that being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall.”8 Those who did find correlations in arrests and Latin ethnicity explained that these were not connected to increased instances of crime; but rather “the Hispanic population in America is young, disproportionately low-income, of limited educational attainment and typically congregates within U.S inner city neighborhood”7. Considering these characteristics it is not surprising that crime statistics report Hispanics offending at an increased rate, because “individuals of any racial or ethnic background fitting these demographics offend disproportionately.”8 Furthermore, the most common offense leading to detention has been immigration violations, according to the US Government Accountability Office (2011). Even when accounting for this, Latinx immigrants remain 16.6% of total arrests despite only making up 18% of the US population. 

US foreign Policy: Developing Central America

The Department of State’s “U.S strategy for Central America and Southern Mexico” outlines American foreign policy goals as the commitment of the US to enhancing “security, governance and economic prosperity that can … help us jointly address the shared challenges of migration, narcotics trafficking and transnational criminal organization.”7 Through this document, the US hopes to securitise itself by promoting economic development elsewhere. For instance, under the Obama administration, the Alliance for Prosperity extended $750 million in funding to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if these nations set policies in motion to tackle violence, unemployment, poor governance and other factors causing emigration6. Under this programme, funds were directly sent to the source countries of migration. Hence, on December 17th, 2018, the US announced a $10.6 billion contribution to pre-existing aid programs in Mexico a style of foreign policy focuses on the development of Mexico as a buffer for northward migration.7 These funds are allocated to the Zona Libre programme that Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, calls “Mexico’s Marshall Plan” to address the root causes of Central American migration. It is a $30 billion initiative to invest in the region’s economy and to welcome migrants into Mexico with work visas, health care and employment opportunities so as to stop their further migration.9 In the Mexican region bordering the US, the programme halves sales taxes, reduces income taxes from 30% to 20% and nearly doubles minimum wage (ibid). This new alliance can be mutually beneficial since President Lopez Obrador can deliver on his promises of economic development for the poorest regions of Mexico, and US leaders can deliver on his promise to halt caravans entering the US from its Southern border. 

Histories of intervention and the paradox of Development

The recurrence of US-backed political and military coups in Central America throughout the 20th century was caused by the US’ prioritization of securitising its assets in the Central American region. This was repeatedly done at the expense of the security of local peoples and their political structures. In fact, the weakening of the State in these countries has allowed gangs to grow in power and influence, further decreasing security in the region both then and now. Yet, the US fails to see chronic violence in Central America as a consequence of negligent foreign policy and fail to see migration as the whiplash from its own interventionism.

The US continues to exert power over Mexico if not politically, through the formation of trade agreements that exploit Mexican labour and resources. The signing of NAFTA in 1994 redistributed economic sectors between the two nations. Decreased wages in Mexico reduced its production costs and increased incentives for foreign direct investment, making it a hub of manufacturing for the US. The result is the outsourcing of US production to maquiladoras, factories located on the Mexican side of the border where labour is cheaper and where goods are transported across at a low cost. Hence, the lending of development aid to the Mexican government is paradoxical, as the US manufacturing model is based on the underdevelopment of its southern neighbour.


The current US-Central American relations perfectly illustrate a nexus between security and development, whereby the US seeks to securitise itself against the threat of “violent” Central American migrants by securitizing source countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) and by developing Mexico in the hope of creating a buffer for migration. The political rhetoric of the current American president clearly demonstrates how constructions of the “other” are not based in fact but in the need to create a sense of identity that is to be defended against this “other”. It is a highly divided nation that elected Trump, and he is now attempting to bandage this brokenness by creating dichotomies not within American society but between Americans and the “others” that threaten their livelihoods. Furthermore, a cynical critique can be made about this iteration of the nexus. It may be American interventionism throughout the 20th century that played a part in the current migration crisis, and accepting this notion can help us to reevaluate the geographies of blame that have been constructed by the US. As a consequence of this, development aid sent to Mexico may be seen as disingenuous since the US manufacturing industry now depends on the low wages in Mexican maquiladoras for its own economic development. These realities help us to understand how social constructs and biases have real world effects, not only in the imaginations of people but in the foreign policies enacted by their governments.  

Lili Pandolfi

Lili is a postgraduate student at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning as well as a former BSc. Environment and Development student at the London School of Economics, writing for Sensus as an editor.

In her articles, she usually approaches the monthly topic from an environmental, developmental or gendered perspective.


[1] Beall, J., Goodfellow, T., & Putzel, J. (2006). Introductory article: on the discourse of terrorism, security and development. Journal of International Development: The Journal of the Development Studies Association, 18(1), 51-67

[2] Pierce, S., Bolter, J., & Selee, A. (2018). Trump’s First Year on Immigration Policy. Migration Policy Institute, January.

[3] Dalby, S. (1998). Geopolitics and Global Security: Culture, identity and the ‘pogo’syndrome. Rethinking geopolitics, 295-313.

[4] Goodall, L. M. (2013). The Otherized Latino: Edward Said’s Orientalism Theory and Reforming Suspect Class Analysis. U. Pa. J. Const. L., 16, 835.

[5] Mastro, D. E., & Greenberg, B. S. (2000). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44(4), 690-703.

[6] Preston, J., (2014) In First for Court, Woman Is Ruled Eligible for Asylum in U.S. on Basis of Domestic Abuse, The New York Times (Available at:

[7] Sieff, Kevin; Sheridan, Mary Beth (2018) U.S., Mexico pledge billions to reduce migration from Central America, The Washington Post. (Available at:

[8] Bernat, F. (2017). Immigration and Crime. In Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology.

[9] Harris, Gardiner & Ahmed, Azam (2018) U.S., Supporting Mexico’s Plan, Will Invest $5.8 Billion in Central America, The New York Times. (Available at: