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Central American Leaders, Facing US Aid Cuts, Vow to Do More

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, gestures as he speaks during the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, June 15, 2017, in Miami. Tillerson was joined by Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray, second from left; Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, center; Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, second from left; and El Salvadoran Vice President Oscar Ortiz.

Facing deep cuts to foreign aid by the Trump administration, Central American leaders pledged Thursday to take more responsibility to battle organized crime and curb illegal immigration from the region.

At a meeting of Latin American leaders in Miami, Washington is pushing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, to enact economic reforms to lift private investment and stem the flow of migrants.

The Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America began with the Inter-American Development Bank announcing $2.5 billion for infrastructure projects in the three nations.

The administration of President Donald Trump hopes tax and regulatory changes in the region will boost growth and encourage companies to invest, filling the gap left by less aid to the region. He sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to oversee talks in Miami.

The U.S. 2018 budget proposal plans cutting aid to Guatemala by almost 40 percent compared with 2016, and by nearly a third to Honduras and El Salvador.

Still, leaders from the region told the conference organized by the U.S. and Mexican governments that they were committed to local integration and improving common infrastructure.

'We Hondurans' must invest

"For every dollar provided by the United States, Honduras will provide four," Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said at the conference.

"We Hondurans must be the ones who most invest in these objectives," Hernandez added. "We're the ones that have to invest in the private sector. We have to make sure that every dollar is well-focused on the challenges."

Trump took office vowing to slash illegal immigration to the United States and pledged to build a massive border wall to realize his plan, saying Mexico would pay for it. That has caused repeated diplomatic strains with Mexico, which Trump accused during his election campaign of sending drug traffickers and criminals across the U.S. border.

Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala, said the region needed to make the most of U.S. support to build on advances in battling organized crime and production of illegal narcotics.

"We're saying that we, the Central American countries of the Northern Triangle, don't just have the ability to do what we need to do to help in the fight against these emerging threats, but that we're also ... absolutely willing to help," he said.

Ahead of the meeting, State Department officials said the commitment to the region was still "substantial," with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Creamer saying that over the last two years, the United States has committed $1.3 billion pver the last two years and an additional $650 million in fiscal 2017.

Asked at a news conference if there was resistance to the U.S. aid cuts, Tillerson said "direct aid" had not been a major issue.

"No one came to our meetings with their hand out," he said.