U.S. urges Colombia and Central America to help stem migration

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Thursday called on Central American and Colombian authorities to help curb illegal immigration to the United States, widening the net of countries the Trump administration has sought to enlist to contain the phenomenon.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan speaks next to Panama's Security Minister Rolando Mirones during a meeting with ministers from Central America and Colombia to discuss security and migration issues, in Panama City, Panama August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Erick Marciscano

On a visit to Panama City, U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan told a meeting of security and migration officials from Central America and Colombia that the migrant flows north were a “regional challenge.”

Tens of thousands of people from violent, impoverished parts of Central America leave their homes each year in search of a better future in the United States. The exodus has angered U.S. President Donald Trump and caused U.S. tension with Mexico.

Many other migrants from Africa, Asia and the West Indies cross through Ecuador, Colombia or Brazil before heading toward the U.S. border via Panama. Mexico’s government has appealed to South American countries to help stem the flows.

Noting that criminal groups fueling illegal immigration operated across national borders, McAleenan urged Colombia and Panama to assist the United States in “concrete operational actions” that went beyond information-sharing.

“The last two months, bringing in Panama, Costa Rica and now Colombia has been a tremendously positive development in this discussion,” he said, without providing details of what these countries had done to help address the migrant challenge.

Curbing illegal immigration has been one of Trump’s signature political pledges, and the issue is shaping up to become a major theme of the 2020 U.S. presidential race.

Trump has pressured Mexico and Guatemala to act as buffer zones for migrants moving north.

The Panamanian government has dismissed reports from local media that McAleenan was preparing to sign a bilateral agreement with Panama while in the country aimed at securing its participation in plans to contain northbound migration.

At the end of July, Costa Rican and Panamanian officials arrested nearly 50 people linked to a network suspected of smuggling U.S.-bound people through Central America. The route also served to smuggle arms and drugs.

“If we coordinate our efforts, we’ll succeed in dismantling these migrant smuggling networks, which is the third most lucrative crime in the world after drug and arms trafficking,” said Christian Krueger, director of Colombia’s migration authority. “We aren’t getting anywhere working individually.”

Reporting by Elida Moreno; additional reporting by Diego Oré; writing by Rebekah F Ward; Editing by David Gregorio