EL SALVADOR - The new U.S. ambassador to El Salvador says the United States is looking forward to reintegrating migrants there from other Central American nations who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Ambassador Ronald Johnson, speaking in his first interview since his appointment in July, told VOA there was not a timeline on when El Salvador would start taking in migrants.
“I don't have a timeline on it, but I do think that the intent is that it will be implemented in a way that is not burdensome to any of the countries,” Johnson said.
Last week, the U.S. deported its first asylum seeker to Guatemala as part of a Trump administration agreement with the Central American nation.
Under a July agreement between Washington and Guatemala City, asylum seekers have to file claims in Guatemala rather than in the United States if they crossed through Guatemala on their way to the U.S. border. The agreement primarily affects immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, as land routes to the U.S. border from those countries pass through Guatemala.
Critics have raised concerns about sending asylum seekers to a country like Guatemala, which is struggling with violence and poverty.
Asked about the potential for gangs to cross borders and attack asylum seekers, Johnson told VOA the U.S. is “working very closely with all the countries that have signed an asylum agreement to ensure that people are reintegrated in a place where they do feel safe, and they have certain protections in place.”
The interview, edited for brevity, is below:
Carla Babb, VOA News: Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with Voice of America, I hear that this is your first interview since becoming ambassador, is that correct?
Ambassador Ronald Johnson: That is correct. I've been here a little less than three months now. And I can think of no better place to begin then with Voice of American with you, Carla. So thank you very much.
VOA: Well, thank you. Let's talk about your mission. You've had some aid that was pulled. How has that affected the mission?
Johnson: We certainly have need here for those. And I think going forward, I mean, I'm very grateful to President Trump for recognizing the significant improvements in success that we've had here, and for being willing to turn that assistance back on. So we had a brief pause. But we're ready to, we're ready to start up again and move forward with the programs that we had in place. And we were able to continue with things that continued to support our security arrangements, illegal immigration, and continue to promote things like, for example, we’re opening 46 new schools here this year.
VOA: I'm looking at this map and I'm seeing how much Pacific Ocean coastline there is, and it makes me wonder how critical the US presence here is to the drug fight?
Johnson: It's extremely critical. And as I said, Salvador is a transit zone. And if it were easier to land illegal narcotics in El Salvador and then move them over land, or by air, to the United States, we would see a lot more of that occur. So I'm very encouraged by the success that we've had working with the Salvadorans in the counter-narcotics mission, and I look for that to not just to continue but to increase. I don't know President (Nayib) Bukele has commented on that several times too about his desire to end illegal drugs here. Now ending illegal drugs is difficult, but making improvements is important and it's everyone's mission.
VOA: We have a lot of migrants that are coming from this country, up to the United States. How would you describe the current status of El Salvador?
Johnson: President Bukele stepped up shortly after his inauguration and accepted responsibility for forcing people--by the standards of living here in El Salvador and the violence--forcing people to make a bad decision to put their families at risk and make this journey to the US border illegally. He accepted responsibility and he said, “We in El Salvador have to change those conditions.” For me, that was music to my ears, because he has the same goals for El Salvador that I do. And that is to improve the security situation, so that people don't feel threatened and forced out of their in their neighborhoods and away from their families, and to increase economic opportunities here, so that they can make a future for themselves here in their homeland, with their families, and with the country that they grew up in.
VOA: How interconnected is the gang violence and the drug trafficking between El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala?
Johnson: Well, El Salvador because of its geographic location does enjoy one thing; it is pretty much a transit zone but not a destination or an origination point for drugs. So drugs do come through the area. This mission here has been very successful. Over the last five years, we've interdicted something like $45 billion with a “B” of illegal narcotics, primarily in the ocean, because most of the drugs originate in South America, and they transit the region by maritime means to countries closer to the United States border. They try to bypass El Salvador and one of the reasons they do that is because of the terrific cooperation we've had with the government here in the security forces here to prevent drugs. And I think one of the reasons that it's important to them is because they understand that where drugs go violence also goes.
VOA: We just had the first Honduran citizen, be returned to Guatemala. There was concerned that there's you're just moving somebody from another from one country that has gang violence to another country. If somebody was to come from Honduras to El Salvador perhaps, is that going to be a solution that could work for El Salvador? Or is there concern that the gangs could cross borders?
Johnson: Right, That's a very interesting question. It's very complex, of course. There's also concern, I mean we have MS-13 in the United States. And they have, we have reason to believe that they have conducted violence on the behest of MS-13 members here in El Salvador, and they've done this in Maryland and New York and California, so there's always the danger and the possibility. That said, we are working very closely with all the countries that have signed an asylum agreement to ensure that people are reintegrated in a place where they do feel safe, and they have certain protections in place. So far, we've only had the one person in Guatemala. We're watching that very closely, and we're looking forward to working with the Salvadoran government to create a capability and a capacity here to reintegrate people here and provide them with the kind of security that they were seeking when they left their country of origin.
VOA: Do you foresee that happening soon? What's the timeline on that?
Johnson: I don't have a timeline on it. But I do think that the intent is that it will be implemented in a way that is not burdensome to any of the countries. And we're certainly interested in ensuring that Salvadorans no matter where they might go for asylum are provided with security and protection as well. So it's two parts for us. I mean, we're very interested and concerned about any of the people, asylum seekers that come here to El Salvador, but we're equally concerned about Salvadoran citizens that find themselves in another country, like Guatemala, for example.
VOA: Since you mentioned MS-13 that makes me want to ask, how integrated is the US whole of government approach to countering MS-13?
Johnson: Here we're very integrated. We have legal teams that are here. We have teams from the FBI, we work with their law enforcement entities, we work with their border control, but we also work with their judges and their courts. And I think that's extremely important because you can make arrest, but you can't arrest your way out of this situation. People have to be held accountable.
And so we're working with them to make sure that they are and that the prosecution rates rise and continue to improve. I think we've been very successful right now. In the six, less than six months that President Bukele’s been here, they've arrested and taken off the streets 12,000 violent criminals, many of them were gang members. And I think it's been very successful but it is still a work in progress too. There's a great number of people, some estimate 50,000-70,000 gang members in El Salvador, but when you look at that number and break it down, there are those that are that are just violent criminals that sort of enjoy the life that crime provides them. There are others that are forced into gangs because of threats made against them and their family. They need additional security. I think we can work on that. And then there's those that do it because they don't have other opportunities and they can make a few bucks every day working with the gang. So most of the people, we've talked to a lot of the people that have been arrested about gang membership, most of them would like to get out of the gangs. They don't they don't like it. They don't like the violence that's associated with it. So I think there's all three groups we can work with. We have to arrest those that enjoy the violence, we have to help those that feel threatened and we have to give opportunities to those that do it because there's no other opportunity for them.
VOA: How much coastline exactly to China want from El Salvador? And then how would that affect the United States if China was able to secure a big port in an area like El Salvador?
Johnson: Well, let me go back to China's initial engagement with El Salvador. It was during the previous administration and the initial deal would have given China control of 70% of the coastline, 30% of the landmass, and it would also give them special incentives and tax breaks that other companies didn't have, making it difficult for Salvadoran companies or other companies to compete. This current administration has, in connection with the assembly or the legislative branch here in El Salvador, has stopped that. However, they're still diplomatic relationships with China, and that is, as a sovereign nation, that's their right to have those diplomatic relations. Control of 70% of the coastline would be very problematic. And the thing that concerns me is that China has a very poor history of agreements with developing countries, especially in Latin America, the Caribbean and in Africa. And we will work with the government of El Salvador to ensure that those kinds of things that have happened previously don't occur here.
VOA: Should we be worried about China?
Johnson: I think we should worry about China's methods and their intent. When I look at El Salvador, and this is the easy part of my job, 30% of the people in the world who identify themselves as Salvadorans live legally in the United States. We have a culture that is united. We’re their number one trade partner. We have a lot of things we share in addition to the proximity. English is the fastest growing language here in El Salvador. So when I ask myself why the question why, why is El Salvador important to the United States? It's all those reasons. When I asked myself why is El Salvador important to China? What are their business plans? Why do they care? It's difficult for me to understand logically why that would be good business.