US, Mexico host talks to reboot drugs war


Miami (AFP)

The United States and Mexico welcomed Central American leaders to Miami on Thursday to talks on how sound economies and the rule of law can serve as a wall against the drug trade.

President Donald Trump came to power vowing to build a barrier along the US southern border to halt migrants and drug smuggling -- and to overhaul his foreign policy to put "America First."

But when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down this year with Mexican leaders to discuss frontier security, they found that they also had a shared interest in the stability of the countries further south.

Tillerson and his Mexican counterpart Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray opened the two-day "Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America" with a vow to help Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador rise to the challenge.

But Tillerson also made it clear where Washington's priorities lie.

"As part of the president's agenda, we seek to bolster US national security, secure our borders and advance US economic interest," Tillerson told the opening session at Florida International University.

"Promoting prosperity in Central America is a key component of this effort, as our prosperity and security interests are tightly linked through the movement of ideas, people and goods," he said.

Addressing Presidents Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Jimmy Morales of Guatemala and Vice President Oscar Ortiz of El Salvador, Videgaray stressed the value of unity in the face of international gangs.

"Those of us who have the privilege of living in this great region, we understand that issues such as migration, security, economic development, stability and prosperity are shared challenges," he said.

"Working together, we have a far better chance of tackling this problem that brings us together," the Mexican minister argued.

But the Miami get-together comes just as Trump's administration looks to dramatically cut development assistance -- and US officials stressed that the meeting will also seek to convince new partners to help out.

- Right turn -

Along with co-host Mexico and the Northern Triangle -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- envoys from Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain are taking part.

"Much of the product that is flowing through Central America today in trafficking routes makes a right turn and heads to Western Europe," assistant secretary of state William Brownfield said ahead of the talks.

It may be a question of tactics rather than resources. In the 46 years since then-US president Richard Nixon first declared drugs "public enemy number one," the "War on Drugs" has produced more casualties than victors.

And Hernandez, of Honduras, warned that without outside support, Central America could pose an even greater threat that it does now.

"A convulsing Central America, faced with a lack of opportunities and with violence, is a tremendous risk for the United States, Mexico and the region," he told the opening session.

"On the contrary, a prosperous and peaceful Central America is America's best investment in support of its people and, of course, a great investment for us."

Brownfield -- who heads the State Department's law enforcement and counter-narcotics efforts -- told reporters before the talks that progress has been made in the often-lawless Northern Triangle since 2009.

Working with Colombian trainers fresh from their own long war against cartels and militias, the United States has spent $1.5 billion building police and judicial capacity in a region destabilized by traffickers.

- Supply chain -

The tactics have started to get results -- homicide, violence and drug flights are down over the past two years -- but have also been controversial and often criticized as too brutal by local communities.

Just last month, an official report found that American anti-drug agents had been more involved in the deaths of Honduran civilians during botched raids in 2012 that they had previously admitted.

The new initiatives, coming along with Trump's aggressive rhetoric about building a "great wall" to stop criminals from bringing rape and drugs from Mexico, have led to fears of a new militarization of the effort.

Tillerson argues that the new plan is not more of the same, but a big-picture effort to dismantle the drugs supply chain, from imports of Chinese precursor chemicals to cross-border interception.

US Vice President Mike Pence is also due to address the gathering, and on Friday, events will move to the US military command for Latin America.

There, diplomats and economists will take a back seat and the leaders will be addressed by US Homeland Security chief John Kelly and Mexico's interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.