MIAMI – U.S. and Central American officials found common ground Thursday on the benefits of economic development and the need to reduce drug trafficking as the administration of President Donald Trump proposes to dial back financial assistance to the region.Vice President Mike Pence told leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that the U.S. shares their goal of improving their economies, which coincides with a Trump agenda that includes stronger border enforcement and less illegal immigration."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 told leaders of the countries, along with senior officials from Mexico, at a two-day conference in Miami.Pence noted that the Trump administration has proposed $460 million in assistance, which will 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. "The United States will continue to work with our partners to support the programs that prove effective," 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. Some indirectly warned of the consequences of such a move."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," said Juan Orlando Hernandez, president of Honduras. "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."The remarks came at the start of the two-day Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, which also includes senior officials of 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 country without becoming citizens for nearly 20 years. Central American officials have said their countries would not be able to absorb them.[caption id="attachment_63064" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (L) speaks as Mexico's Secretary of Finance Jose Antonio Meade (C) and Colombia's Minister of Finance Mauricio Cardenas (R) listen during the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Miami. Photo: AP/Lynne Sladky, Pool
[/caption]Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. views it as practical to assist the countries of the Northern Triangle, which in recent years have become a principal transit route for US-bound illegal drugs and have experienced some of the world's highest homicide rates."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," Tillerson said.But some experts on the region worry that the U.S. is too focused on security and that the cuts to the program known as the Alliance for Prosperity will undermine progress. "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.El Salvador Vice President Oscar Ortiz said the region's countries must work together against violence and drug trafficking. "We are stronger together," he said.
BEN FOXGISELA SALOMON