Regional presidents, U.S. Cabinet members, the vice president and top Mexican officials will meet in Miami this week to take on some of the most vexing problems plaguing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the battered countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle.
Drug trafficking, gang violence and other criminality have taken their toll, resulting in 50,000 murders over the past three years in the Northern Triangle, and that insecurity — combined with widespread corruption and lack of economic opportunities and development — has contributed to a massive outflow of the countries’ residents. Most of them have ended up in the United States.
The Conference on Prosperity and Security, set for Thursday and Friday, is being convened by both the United States and Mexico, a country crisscrossed by drug trafficking, organized crime and people smuggling routes.
“The co-hosting of the conference by Mexico is crucial since Mexico is an invaluable partner with a shared interest in improving conditions in Central America,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John S. Creamer, whose portfolio includes Cuba, Mexico and Central America, said Monday. “It will take strong leadership from the United States, Mexico and other partners to tackle the economic, security and governance challenges facing the region.”
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Although President Donald Trump has blasted Mexico for its porous border and threatened to build a border wall, the conference is an indication that Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly sees Mexico as a potential ally in the effort to stem illegal immigration and believes border security actually starts 1,500 miles to the south of the United States along Mexico’s border with its Central American neighbors.
“The focus here... is how do we stimulate private economic investments in the three Central American republics,” said Kelly, who first broached the idea of the conference during a trip to Guatemala and Mexico in February. “And the next day will focus on drug trafficking, human trafficking” and efforts to achieve a more secure Central America.
During the Guatemala trip, a senior DHS official said Kelly told him “you never get to prosperity without security.... you can’t have security without prosperity.” People are leaving Central America, Kelly said during an April speech, “because they lack economic opportunity and experience high levels of violence in their communities.”
The conference hopes to build on the Alliance for Prosperity, a program that began in 2014 during the Obama administration and is aimed at stemming Central American migration through economic development and improved security. Programs, which were developed by the three Central America countries, are backed by funding from the three Northern Triangle countries and multilateral institutions. The U.S. has also committed $1.9 billion over the next several years, Creamer said.
Most analysts say it’s difficult to assess the Alliance’s impact, noting that the money only began to be distributed relatively recently, while critics question whether too much emphasis is being placed on the law-and-order part of the equation and not enough on economic and social development programs.
But the DHS official said: “This is not a focus on hardening our border. We're saying, ‘Don't waste your money paying the price of being smuggled by a coyote; it's dangerous. Stay with your community, stay with your church, stay with your family and the bargain is, we will protect you.’”
The conference comes just as the Trump administration is proposing sharp cutbacks in State Department and USAID funding next year. Some leaders of U.S.-funded job-training programs in Central America for young people wonder about the future of the programs if Congress doesn’t restore some of the money to the budget.
“I want to see more talk about not just international trade or building a border wall, but more talk on training and youth workforce development,” said Rick Jones, Catholic Relief Services’ technical adviser in the region.
He said the highly successful YouthBuild program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, is in danger of turning from a five-year program into a one-year program if the budget cuts stand. YouthBuild provides training and employment services to 5,100 low-income young people in crime-ridden communities in Honduras and El Salvador. More than 80 percent of its first graduates went on to find a job, start a small business or return to school, Jones said.
U.S. officials say the high-level gathering shouldn’t be considered a “donor’s conference” — although the administration has made it clear it thinks Mexico should shoulder more responsibility for security and migration flows in the region.
“The administration has been insisting that this is not a donor’s meeting in part because there is no new money available beyond what Congress approved,” said Eric Olson, deputy director for the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Olson said it had been a goal of both the Obama administration and now the Trump administration’s “to encourage Mexico’s engagement in Central America and thus lessen U.S. exposure. [U.S. officials] are ecstatic that Mexico has begun to play along in a limited way.... But the fact of the matter is Mexico has not devoted and doesn't appear ready to devote the kinds of financial resources it would take to play that role in Central America.”
Historically, Mexico hasn’t prioritized Central America, he said. “There is some degree of delusion among Americans as to what role Mexico is going to play.”
Given Kelly’s background as the former head of the U.S. Southern Command, New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke said she feels the U.S. may try to emphasize border security too much in trying to find solutions for Central America.
“I’ve been highly sensitive to the behavior of Secretary Kelly, being a former military person, approaching his duty with more of a very militarized type lens as opposed to a diplomatic or civilian human rights lens,” she said.
“It’s anything but a militarization,” said the senior DHS official. “It’s a very holistic view of what security is and it comes in the form of joint operations.”
Doris Meissner, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute and commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton, said it helps that Kelly worked on the Alliance for Prosperity during the Obama administration, and also that he favors a multi-pronged approach.
“You cannot effectively deal with this kind of flow just by having an effective asylum system and refugee policy in the United States or just by focusing on development and reduced violence in the region. You have to do them both,” Meissner said.
But, she added: “How optimistic am I that anything [in the region] will change quickly? I would be a little bit more guarded about that.”
Still, for a few days next week, Miami will be at the center of the U.S.-Mexico-Central America debate with Kelly leading the charge.
Vice President Mike Pence will give the keynote address Thursday and will have a series of bilateral meetings alongside the conference with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield will join their counterparts from Mexico: Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Videgaray, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade and Secretary of Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
There have been reports that Trump also may come to Miami on Friday to announce a revised Cuba policy. But Creamer declined to confirm that visit. The president has asked for a review of all former President Barack Obama’s Cuba initiatives. The review continues, said Creamer, and the president will announce his new Cuba policy “at a time and place of his choosing.”
The State Department is planning the first day of the conference, which focuses on prosperity and economic growth and will be held at Florida International University’s Tamiami campus.
On Friday, the conference moves to Southern Command headquarters in Doral for a security portion that addresses rule of law, supporting government efforts to combat transnational organized crime, citizen security and border security management. Leaders also will focus on how to build on recent successes in the Northern Triangle, along with data sharing, modern police techniques and fighting corruption.
A pre-conference meeting, organized by the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will be held Wednesday at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables. It will bring together dozens of companies from throughout the Americas, including Monsanto, Walmart, GE and Coca Cola, all of which will be encouraged to look at investment opportunities in the Northern Triangle.
“These countries need a fundamental investment shock such that they can retain the numbers of people who are leaving their countries because they have no other options,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank. “To do that, it’s not simply U.S. support. It equally requires support from other governments.”
Moreno says the IDB, which has invested $850 million of its own funding into the Alliance for Prosperity over the past 2 1/2 years, has been working with the business community in the three countries to get them to agree to invest in infrastructure projects over the next five years through a new tax. He's hoping to announce the agreement this week.
Costa Rica, Colombia, Canada, Panama, Belize, Chile, Spain and other European Union nations will attend as observers, and members of Congress have been invited to Friday’s security discussions.
They’ve been invited, Brownfield said, because there’s a need to form broader partnerships in dealing with Central America’s problems with an emphasis on shared solutions, better coordination and shared funding.
“It is not surprising that the European Union, Spain are participating in this conference,” Brownfield said. “We have statistics that suggest much of the product that is flowing through Central America in trafficking routes makes a right turn and heads to Western Europe rather than proceeding north to North America.” Increasingly, he said, drugs also are making a left turn and heading toward Asian countries.
Even though the first day of the conference is being held on FIU’s campus, university researchers who worked on a study of Central American gangs, including the infamous Salvador street gang MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, haven’t been invited.
The researchers found that it was possible for young Central American gang members to leave their gangs. But lead investigator Miguel Cruz noted: “Even if you negotiated with a gang and have permission to leave, you need to have jobs and opportunities to sustain yourself and and your family. And they don’t have that.”
By the Salvadoran government’s own estimates, there are 30,000 gang members in the country.
Cruz said it won’t really be possible to promote development until government institutions are cleaned up. “I believe the root of problems in the region is the level of corruption,” he said. “Corruption has depleted the capacity of states to respond to their populations... and to the extent corruption prevails, efforts to fight poverty and insecurity will most likely fail.”
Civil society groups also won’t have a seat at the table during the conference. “Unfortunately, civil society groups like ours, which have been on the front lines of helping the region’s most vulnerable people, are not invited,” said Robyn Fieser, communications manager for Catholic Relief Services in Latin America and the Caribbean. “And programs that help stem migration by generating opportunity and stability are at risk of being cut under the proposed reduction in foreign aid.”
While acknowledging that the role of civil society organizations in Central America is important, a senior State Department official said that the goal of the conference is fostering private-public sector dialogue and getting the countries of the region to work together on shared problems.
The economic piece of the conference will focus on topics such as how to remove barriers to trade and investment, growth prospects, infrastructure, fiscal reforms such as improving tax collections and streamlining enforcement of trade and Customs regulations.
“We know this will be a multi-year effort,” said the State Department official. “The conference is not a one-off event. It has to be seen as a process.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says migration flows from Central America are currently at a 20-year low.
"People are not getting on the network to come north because clearly there is a different attitude toward illegal immigration,” he said. While the Trump administration isn’t anti-immigration, Kelly said it is anti-illegal or irregular immigration.
“"The perception is that the attitude toward illegal immigration by the U.S. government is no longer what it had been” under the Obama administration, Kelly said.
Between January and May of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 118,383 individuals along the southwest U.S. border with Mexico, compared to 222,024 for the same period in 2016. Overall, undocumented migrants arriving at the southwestern border have dropped by 64 percent when comparing May 2016 to May 2017, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.
“There is no good explanation for that if you look at seasonal patterns,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute who served as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton. “It almost certainly is what's referred to as the 'Trump Effect,' the incredible drumbeat of commentary and rhetoric about immigration enforcements.”
Although Honduras, for example, has seen an improvement in its homicide rate in the past year, overall conditions in Central America haven't drastically improved.
What has changed, Meissner and other analysts note, is the message coming from communities within the U.S. with large Central American populations “There is fear there,” Meissner said. “The big question is how long will that slow down last?"