STATE DEPARTMENT - Senior American officials say the United States will signal strong commitment to Central America when top leaders from the region gather in Miami this week, despite a 2018 budget that proposes a significant cut in aid to those countries.
The Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, opening Thursday, will focus on economic, governance and security challenges in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The two-day meeting will draw government and business leaders from the United States, Mexico, Central America and other countries. The American delegation will include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They will join the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador's Salvador Sánchez Cerén, Guatemala's Jimmy Morales and Honduras' Juan Orlando Hernández — plus Mexico's foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray.
The goal is to build "a broader partnership" while seeking "stronger and better integration of security, economic and social development issues," said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.
Leaders will discuss how to combat transnational crime and drug trafficking, foster economic growth and promote the rule of law, U.S. officials said.
Central America "has become a major transit corridor for illegal drugs and a significant source of irregular migration to the United States," the Congressional Research Service (CRS) acknowledged in a report released last week.
"We want to mobilize the international community to demonstrate its commitment to confronting the shared challenges we face in the region," said John Creamer, a deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees Cuba, Mexico, Central America and Western Hemisphere issues.
Representatives of Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain also are invited to the Miami gathering.
The Trump administration has requested $460 million in assistance for the Northern Triangle in fiscal 2018, down more than 30 percent from its current $655 million allocation but "still a substantial amount of money," Creamer said.
Since fiscal 2016, Congress has appropriated $1.4 billion to implement U.S. strategy in Central America, the CRS reported.
Advocates worry the proposed cut would negatively affect Northern Triangle economies, security and migration.
The U.S. is "sending a mixed message to the region in U.S. involvement in addressing the challenges" facing Central America, said Adriana Beltran, a senior associate for advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Senior U.S. officials say the proposed budget cut does not reflect reduced commitment to the region but instead a desire to get "maximum value for the dollars" allocated.
President Donald Trump is to unveil a revised policy on Cuba in the coming days that would roll back parts of former President Barack Obama's efforts to normalize relations. The changes may include restrictions on those who travel to and do business with the island nation, whose leaders were not invited to the regional conference.
"It is even a bigger mixed message if the presidents of Central America and the vice president of the United States are in Miami to hold a meeting emphasizing the U.S. support for the region and the president shows up to deliver a controversial statement about a completely different Latin America issue," said Geoff Thale, WOLA's program director.
U.S. media reports have predicted Trump will announce the Cuba policy changes Friday in Miami, but White House officials have declined to confirm such a trip.
The Trump administration has stressed the need to work with Central America on curbing illegal immigration, drug trafficking and transnational crime.
Last month in Washington, Tillerson and Kelly met with their Mexican counterparts. Tillerson said the U.S. would "continue to partner with Mexico to disrupt and destroy" transnational criminal organizations that enable drug trafficking.
"Almost 20,000 Americans died from overdoses of heroin or synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, in 2015," Tillerson said at a joint press briefing. "An estimated 100,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since 2006."
On Friday, the conference moves to the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, Florida, where 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.
Pence also will participate in bilateral meetings with the Northern Triangle leaders.