By BEN FOX and GISELA SALOMON
MIAMI (AP) — U.S. and Central American officials found common ground Thursday on the benefits of economic development as a way to fight violence and drug trafficking and reduce illegal immigration.
At a conference on Central American security and economic issues, officials in the administration of President Donald Trump made the point repeatedly that strengthening the U.S. border and reducing the flow of migrants— key elements of Trump’s agenda — depend on stabilizing the region, which has been engulfed in drug-fueled violence in recent years. Leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala for the most part agreed.
Vice President Mike Pence noted the presence of 85,000 gang members in those three countries, which make up Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle,” and said their activities “radiate outward and reach the United States” while most U.S.-bound drugs flow through Central America. Addressing those problems, along with the flow of migrants north, requires building up the economies of the countries, he said.
“A flourishing economy gives people a reason, a reason to put down roots in the land of their birth and to grow rather than fleeing to the north,” Pence said. “Good paying jobs give people an alternative to a life of poverty, hopelessness and crime.”
His remarks came at the start of the two-day Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, which also includes senior officials from Mexico.
The public comments were followed by a series of private meetings at which officials were expected to discuss such matters as whether the U.S. will extend the temporary legal residency status of about 200,000 migrants from Central America who have been allowed to stay in the United States without becoming citizens for nearly 20 years. Central American officials have said their countries would not be able to absorb them.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. views it as practical to assist the three countries. “What happens in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala directly affects the security and economic interests of the United States and other countries in the region,” he said.
Central American leaders echoed the call for strengthening the economies of the region and their ability to fight drug trafficking and the gangs that have overwhelmed the countries. They said they have made gains thanks to assistance from the U.S., which dramatically increased support for the three countries following a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border in 2014.
“Irregular migration creates risks for everyone,” Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said. “Nobody wants that.”
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez indirectly warned of the consequences of ending support for the region.
“A convulsing Central America, faced with a lack of opportunities and with violence, is a tremendous risk for the United States, Mexico and the region,” he said. “On the contrary, a prosperous and peaceful Central America is America’s best investment in support of its people and, of course, a great investment for us.”
Pence noted the Trump administration has proposed $460 million in assistance, to be used to strengthen law enforcement and develop their economies. He didn’t mention that the amount is 30 percent less than was approved last year by Congress under President Barack Obama, which has dismayed some experts on the region.
“We think it’s very difficult to signal support effectively when you are proposing such draconian cuts,” said Geoff Thale, a program director with the Washington Office on Latin America.
Carlos Diaz Rosillo, director of policy and interagency coordination in the White House, said the U.S. and the Central American leaders hoped to make commitments on infrastructure plans and energy reform, among other things. He dismissed concerns about the reduced funding as part of wider cuts that proposed throughout the government by Trump.
“We are still contributing and we are still hoping to have strong relationships despite the budget cuts that we are seeing throughout the federal government,” he said. “It should not be seen as singling out Central America because that’s not the case at all.”