WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 Jun 2017 | Commentary

Key Concerns about the Central America Conference in Miami

Background WOLA experts on Central America, citizen security, Mexico, and migration held a press call on June 13 to discuss the Miami conference and its potential impact on U.S. engagement in the region. To listen to a recording of this call, please click here.

On June 15 and 16, senior government officials from the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will meet in Miami, Florida to discuss the economic, security, and governance challenges facing the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle and the future of the United States’ commitment to the region. The “Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America,” co-hosted by the U.S. and Mexican governments, will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, the Vice President of El Salvador, and other senior regional government officials and members of the private sector.

WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas, highlights four key concerns to consider regarding the conference.

1. Although one of the conference’s goals is to reiterate the United States government’s continued commitment to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the event takes place at a time in which the Trump administration has proposed significant cuts in levels of assistance to Central America. The fiscal year 2018 budget proposal for the region ($468 million) presented by the administration includes a 39 percent cut from the funding levels approved for fiscal year 2016 ($750 million) and a 28 percent cut from the amount recently approved for fiscal year 2017 ($655 million).

Additionally, the administration has been toughening its rhetoric about Central American migrants arriving at the border, as well as toward immigrant communities in the United States. For example, the administration has recently signaled the possibility that it may not renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador and Honduras, raising serious concerns about the future of the more than 250,000 people who have spent nearly two decades living and raising their families in the United States—and who could be deported to their countries of origin, which lack the capacity to receive and reintegrate that quantity of people.

2. A possible shift of U.S. assistance to Central America toward a more militarized and security-centered approach. The Obama administration’s U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America was developed to address the underlying factors leading to irregular migration and recognizes, in principle, the need to reduce violence, strengthen public institutions, combat corruption, and expand economic opportunities. Under the current administration, however, there is a risk of returning to a more traditional approach to security assistance: the Trump administration’s budget request includes a 42 percent cut in economic and development assistance to the region, from approximately $520 million for fiscal year 2017 to just over $300 million for fiscal year 2018. If approved, these cuts would have a serious impact on programs aimed at preventing violence, generating education and employment opportunities for at-risk youth, and strengthening security and justice institutions in the region.

In turn, the administration has requested a budget increase for the Department of Defense, which could result in an increasing role of the U.S. Southern Command in Central America. This is particularly troubling given the rhetoric by Secretary Kelly, the former head of Southern Command, who has on several occasions characterized the causes of violence in Central America as a product of drug trafficking—a narrative that is not supported by multiple analyses and ignores important nuances in the security, corruption, and impunity challenges that undermine governance in the region.

It is also important to note the exclusion of human rights from the agenda, as well as the lack of consultation and participation from civil society in the lead-up to and during the summit. The perspective and experiences of organizations working in communities most affected by violence and on issues related to migration and development are critical for the development of a comprehensive and sustainable strategy toward the region.

3. The over-sized role of the Department of Homeland Security in foreign policy discussions and decisions that should be under the leadership of the State Department. The second day of the summit, dedicated to defining the U.S. relationship and security policy toward Central America, will be led by Secretary Kelly and will take place at Southern Command, the headquarters of U.S. military operations in Central and South America. However, foreign policy issues should be under the purview of the State Department, and the citizen security, corruption, and rule of law challenges facing the region are matters best addressed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department. It is revealing that Secretary Tillerson will not be present for the second day of the summit when these issues are scheduled to be discussed.

4. Mexico’s role as co-host of the conference raises concerns about the country’s growing participation in immigration enforcement in its southern border region. The United States sees Mexico as an important ally in the control of migration from the Northern Triangle. Since 2014, and at the request of the United States, Mexico has dramatically increased immigration enforcement in southern Mexico, so much so that in fiscal year 2015, Mexico apprehended more Central Americans than the United States. The increased immigration enforcement under the “Southern Border Program” has resulted in an alarming increase in crimes and abuses against migrants. Migrants traveling through Mexico are frequently subject to crimes including robbery, sexual assault, extortion, and kidnapping. For example, a report by the migrant shelter La 72 reveals a steady number of crimes against migrants committed in the first part of their journey through the southern border state of Tabasco. From 2015 to 2016, although cases of assault, robbery, and abuse of authority against migrants declined, the shelter documented that kidnappings and sexual assault increased by more than 50 percent.

Mexico has also seen a dramatic increase in asylum applications—particularly from the Northern Triangle countries—and is implementing important measures to increase protections for asylum seekers and refugees. The Mexican government has placed migration, as well as security, among the issues on the negotiating table with the United States in this new stage of their relationship. The commitments made by the Mexican government at the summit will give clear signals of how the country will position itself with regards to migration flows in the region and its relationship with its neighboring countries.

WOLA experts on Central America, citizen security, Mexico, and migration held a press call on June 13 to discuss the Miami conference and its potential impact on U.S. engagement in the region. To listen to a recording of this call, please click here.