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article imageUS urges Central America to fight drugs, with less cash

By Dave Clark (AFP)     Jun 15, 2017 in World

The United States pledged to help Central America defeat drug gangs and build a prosperous future Thursday, despite planning a near 30 percent cut in its own support.

The US welcomed its southern neighbors to talks in Miami to discuss how to halt trafficking and illegal immigration in the age of border walls and "America First" budget cuts.

US President Donald Trump came to power vowing to build a new barrier along the US southern border, accusing Mexico of allowing its worst people to cross, bringing crime and drugs.

But when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down with Mexican leaders, they found they also had a shared interest in the stability of the countries further south.

The two-day "Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America" opened with a vow to help Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador restore wealth and ensure the rule of law.

US Vice President Mike Pence said Trump would set aside $460 million to support the three "Northern Triangle" nations through a stark crisis of governance.

But that sum, yet to be approved by Congress as part of the State Department's 2018 budget, would be a steep drop from the $650 million set aside in the 2017 financial year.

Pence said he would travel on Trump's behalf to South and Central America later this year "to build on the good work being done" in the Northern Triangle region.

In these countries, he warned, an estimated 85,000 people work for gangs trafficking drugs northwards and one in five citizens have been victims of serious crime.

- Greater threat? -

"Under President Donald Trump the United States' borders will be strong but the borders of the United States will always be open to legal immigrants and lawful flow of commerce," he said.

"We will make sure that our borders are closed to those who would do us harm and that they will be impassible to the drugs that are besetting our families and communities."

Co-hosting the talks with Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, Tillerson said the United States would continue to work with Central America to train police and judges.

And Washington, he added, will promote trade and investment "as our prosperity and security interests are tightly linked through the movement of ideas, people and goods."

Addressing Presidents Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Jimmy Morales of Guatemala and Vice President Oscar Ortiz of El Salvador, Videgaray urged unity.

"As part of the president's agenda  we seek to bolster US national security  secure our bo...
"As part of the president's agenda, we seek to bolster US national security, secure our borders and advance US economic interest," US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the opening session at Florida International University
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File

"Working together, we have a far better chance of tackling this problem," he argued.

But President Hernandez of Honduras, warned against US disengagement, arguing that without outside support Central America could pose an even greater threat that it does now.

"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.

- Supply chain -

Since the latest US support program began in 2009, the effort has started to get results -- homicide, violence and drug flights are down over the past two years.

But criminal violence is still an epidemic -- local officials estimate that in 2016 alone 15,809 people were killed in the Triangle, more than 50 homicides per 100,000 people.

"Working together  we have a far better chance of tackling this problem that brings us together...
"Working together, we have a far better chance of tackling this problem that brings us together," Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray argued

And US-backed police tactics have also been controversial and often criticized as too brutal by local communities.

Just last month, an official report found that US agents had been more involved in the deaths of Honduran civilians during botched raids in 2012 than they had previously admitted.

New initiatives, along with Trump's aggressive rhetoric, have led to fears of a new militarization of the effort.

Tillerson argues the new plan is not more of the same, but a big-picture effort to dismantle the drugs supply chain, from imports of Chinese precursor chemicals to street busts.

On Friday, the talks will be hosted by the US military command for Latin America.

Envoys from Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain are taking part.

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