US-Central American security conference scrapped amid tensions

A woman from Honduras carries her baby after surrendering to border patrol agents on June 25, 2018 near Granjeno, Texas. Trump's border crackdown this spring that separated children from their parents caused an uproar across the region, and Central American governments say they are still working to reunite families.


By NICK MIROFF AND JOSHUA PARTLOW | The Washington Post | Published: September 8, 2018

WASHINGTON — A high-level conference intended to highlight U.S. security cooperation with Mexico and Central America was abruptly called off Friday amid flaring diplomatic tensions with El Salvador and Guatemala, according to two Trump administration officials.

Top diplomats and security officials from the United States, Mexico and Central America were scheduled to meet next week in Washington as a follow-up to the "Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America" held in Miami last year and attended by then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state at the time.

The talks scheduled for next week were scrapped after the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala notified U.S. diplomats that they would not travel to Washington, according to the two administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no formal announcement has been made. They said the conference has been "postponed," though new dates have not been set.

U.S. diplomats and Homeland Security officials have sought to promote their partnership with Mexico and the nations of Central America's Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as a key to addressing the gang violence and endemic poverty that fuel illegal migration.

But strains emerged with Guatemala this week after President Jimmy Morales blocked the entry of the head of a U.N.-backed commission that investigates high-level corruption. The body, known as the CICIG, has enjoyed broad U.S. and international support, but Morales said he would not extend its mandate beyond this year. One of the commission's inquiries targeted possible illegal campaign donations to Morales himself, and his decision to oust the U.N. program drew rebukes from U.S. lawmakers as well as calls to suspend American aid.

The tensions with El Salvador and its leftist government are more geopolitical. After El Salvador severed ties with Taiwan last month, seeking to cultivate closer ties to China, Washington recalled its diplomats in protest of the move, which Salvadoran officials characterized as an economic decision.

China has been increasing its investment in ports, railways and other infrastructure projects across Latin America for years, challenging longstanding U.S. dominance in the region.

Last year, Panama cut ties with Taiwan and turned to China and the Dominican Republic made the same decision earlier this year.

These moves have raised concerns that the United States is ceding influence in Latin America to China, particularly during the Trump administration. One theme across the region has been that these Chinese diplomatic negotiations take place quietly — with economic or investment promises largely unknown — and announced with little public debate.

U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, in a message on Twitter, described El Salvador's decision last month as "worrisome."

There have been other sources of recent tension between Central American governments and the Trump administration.

Trump's border crackdown this spring that separated more than 2,500 children from their parents caused an uproar across the region, and Central American governments say they are still working to reunite families after hundreds of mothers and fathers were deported without their relatives. The Trump administration has also announced it will terminate the provisional residency permits of more than 250,000 Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans who have been living and working in the United States with "temporary protected status."

While Trump continues to push for a border wall, Mexico's president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has called for economic development in Central America as the best way to address illegal migration to the United States.