MIAMI (Reuters) - Facing deep cuts to foreign aid by the Trump administration, Central American leaders pledged on Thursday to take more responsibility to battle organized crime and curb illegal immigration from the region.
Washington is pushing the violent countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, to enact economic reforms to lift private investment and stem the flow of migrants at a meeting of Latin American leaders in Miami.
The Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America began with the Inter-American Development Bank announcing $2.5 billion in funding for infrastructure projects in the nations which make up the bulk of migrants crossing the U.S. border.
Trump’s administration 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 - two nations which have competed for the title of the world’s most murderous in recent years.
Still, leaders from the region told the conference organized by the U.S. and Mexican governments that they are committed to local integration and improving common infrastructure.
“For every dollar provided by the United States, Honduras will provide four,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez told 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 that he said Mexico would pay for.
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 and in fiscal 2017, the U.S. pledged an additional $650 million.
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.
Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Sofia Menchu; Editing by Dave Graham and Andrew Hay