Nation & World

Central American conference in Miami turns a cold eye on drugs

Colombian General Juan P. Rodriguez Barragan greets U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly before the opening ceremony of the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America as at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, FL, June 16, 2017.
Colombian General Juan P. Rodriguez Barragan greets U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly before the opening ceremony of the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America as at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, FL, June 16, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherld.com

Neither the United States nor its Latin American neighbors can have peace or prosperity until they get control of the illegal drugs that flow among them, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told regional leaders as the second day of the Conference on Security and Prosperity in Central America got under way Friday.

“Security and prosperity go hand in hand,” Kelly said, addressing top leaders of Mexico and Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “You cannot do one without the other.”

Kelly, a former U.S. Marine general who spent years as the head of the U.S. Southern Command in the same Doral building where the conference is being held, said the experience gave him a first-hand look at the immensity — and savagery — of the violence wrought by the region’s narcotraffickers and street gangs, who are often one and the same.

He called it “devastating” and recalled a conversation with a Central American woman he met in a refugee camp who told him that she was “lucky” to have been merely sexually assaulted and not killed as she fled north toward the United States.

But Kelly also acknowledged that the mammoth U.S. appetite is the engine that drives the narcotrafficking train.

“Drug overdose is the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50” in the United States, Kelly said, adding that more Americans die from drug abuse each year than the entire U.S. death tolls of its wars in Korea or Vietnam.

Though several of the conference’s Thursday sessions on economics were open to the news media, almost all of Friday’s meetings — which concentrated on transnational criminal gangs that smuggle drugs, guns and people — were closed.

During a brief closing news conference, Kelly and Mexican Interior Secretary Ángel Osorio Chong (who oversees his country’s law enforcement and internal security agencies) said some agreements had been reached during the meeting, but they didn’t offer any details

“The countries involved made commitments,” said Kelly. “And these agreements will go a long way to improving conditions in our neighborhood.” Osorio Chong added that all five countries agreed to work “in a comprehensive fashion from a regional perspective....It is paramount that we generate joint solutions.”

The leaders once again mostly managed to avoid potential flashpoints ranging from President Trump’s ambition to build a wall along the U.S. border in Mexico to the potential expulsion of several hundred thousand Central American refugees from the United States.

Kelly acknowledged that Northern Triangle officials, during his one-on-one meetings with them during the conference, brought up the matter of deportations of immigrants who got protected immigration status in the United States after natural disasters years ago in their own countries.

But he deflected questions on the subject from reporters, saying only: “Over time, we’ll work together.” No Central American official added anything to that.

Earlier, during his statement that led off the Thursday session, Kelly said that for all its gravity, even the worst outlaw violence can be overcome.

“Look at the miracle of Colombia. Look at where they were 20 years ago and look at where they are now,” Kelly said, referring to a country once wracked by a cocaine-fueled civil war that’s now on the verge of a comprehensive peace agreement.

He also applied the word “miracle” to the crime-fighting efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “Five years ago, they were the most dangerous countries on the planet, the countries with the highest rates of violence,” Kelly said. Since then, he said, they’ve all reduced violent crime by 20 to 40 percent.

If anything, the Latin America leaders saw the crime problem with even more urgency than Kelly. “We must act here and now” to shut down the violence, said Osorio Chong. “We must work together to end the inertias that have prevailed in the past.”

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