MIAMI, FLORIDA —
Vice President Mike Pence is urging Central American nations to help stop "illegal and dangerous migration," defeat gangs and transnational drug cartels, and end corruption.
"This must end," said Pence on Thursday, "and this will end." Pence plans to travel to Central and South America later this year as part of continuing U.S. outreach to the region.
"Be assured, the United States is proud of our strong partnership with nations in the Northern Triangle. We are committed to strengthening that partnership so that we can continue to address the significant problems facing our neighborhood," Pence added.
Watch: US Hopes for 'Shared Partnership' With Central America to Halt Illegal Immigration
Top U.S. officials said what happens in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala directly affects the security and economic interests of the U.S. and other countries in the region.
"In order to boost economic prosperity, it is imperative that we work together to strengthen the formal economy and diminish the economic drivers of illegal migration and other illicit activities," said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The top U.S. diplomat reaffirmed Washington's pledge to the region, despite a 2018 budget that proposes a significant cut in aid to those countries.
"This is no way an indication that somehow our interest is diminished in the region," said Tillerson, adding that even with the cut, "there is substantial money in the budget to continue our commitment" to support our joint security and law enforcement.
"A convulsing Central America, faced with a lack of opportunities and with violence, is a power risk for the United States, Mexico and the region," said Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Cabinet members from President Donald Trump's administration, senior officials from Mexico, presidents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, along with senior delegates from Latin America gathered in Miami for the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America.
The conference is seen as the result of the close work done by the U.S. and Mexico in recent months.
But critics warned that both countries are turning a "blind eye" to the root cause of Central America's humanitarian crisis.
"Given the extraordinarily high violence at the root of the problem, there should be attention to the emergency needs of people forced from their homes," said Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders USA Executive Director.
Every year, it is estimated that 500,000 people flee the Northern Triangle nations. The high level of violence in the Northern Triangle ranks alongside the world's deadliest war zones and is the main driver of migration from this region, according to Doctors Without Borders.
A three-pronged approach is recommended by some experts to address the root cause, with a focus on sustainable economic development, strengthening the rule of law and improving security.
"Our approach should focus on a shared partnership," said Jason Marczak, who heads the Atlantic Council's Latin America Economic Growth Initiative.
"One of the big challenges that we see in the Northern Triangle is a fact that the judiciaries are weak, impunity rates are incredibly high, cases are not prosecuted," said Marczak, adding that the rampant corruption has a negative impact on people's trust in government and foreign businesses eyeing investment in the region.
Some analysts cautioned the Trump administration not to make a further shift in policy, from aid-based efforts to a more military-focused approach.
The conference comes at a time when the Trump administration has proposed a significant cut — more than 30 percent — in U.S. assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, raising questions about how Washington can accomplish an ambitious agenda in Central America.
"With a reduced foreign assistance budget, it is clear the U.S. is putting a greater emphasis on private-sector actors in spurring economic development," the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Jake Johnston told VOA on Thursday.
"Just as much of this conference will be held behind closed doors, so too is U.S. assistance to Central America incredibly opaque," he added.
On Friday, the conference moves to the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, Florida, where U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly, who previously served as SOUTHCOM commander, will host talks on regional security.
"While the United States is indeed the magnet that feeds drug smuggling through Central and South America, it is mostly our friends in Mexico and to the south that feel the brunt of the violence and the crime," Kelly said last month.