President Donald Trump is withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador because he believes that the three Central American countries are not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal migrants into the US.
The state department confirmed that the administration had informed Congress it would stop the aid. Two congressional aides said the administration said it was redirecting $550m in aid lawmakers had earmarked in the 2017 and 2018 budgets.
The move came three months after Mr Trump had warned that he would cut aid to the countries. “We stopped payment to Honduras, to Guatemala, and to El Salvador,” he said in March. “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them any more because they haven’t done a thing for us.”
Morgan Ortagus, a state department spokesperson, said on Monday the US “will not provide new funds until we are satisfied that those countries are taking concrete actions on reducing illegal migrants coming to the US border”.
The decision to redirect the aid — which critics say helps create better economic conditions that reduce the impetus to emigrate — comes two weeks after the US agreed a deal with Mexico to cut the flow of migrants who travel from Central America through Mexico and attempt to cross over the border into the US.
Democrats and some Republicans have expressed concern that cutting aid would make it more likely that people flee to the US.
Speaking before the state department confirmed the move to redirect the aid away from the three countries, a senior Mexican government official said Mexico had made clear to the US that such a move would be counterproductive and exacerbate the problem.
“We understand the frustration, but it will not help,” said the official, who added that Mexico did not want to publicly criticise Mr Trump since it would make matters worse. “We don’t want to confront the administration. It will not be helpful. But we understand that the cutting off aid is counter-intuitive.”
There was no immediate comment from the three countries.
Analysts in Washington said cutting aid to the region would not help stem the flow of migrants. “It’s completely counter-productive,” said Jason Marczak, a Latin America policy expert at the Atlantic Council. “People leave those countries because of violence and lack of economic opportunity; US funding helps counter those dynamics.”
Mark Schneider, a senior adviser to the Americas programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that cutting aid to programmes designed to improve living conditions and reduce crime in the northern triangle countries made “no sense at all”. “These programmes do work, the answer is not to stop them but to expand them,” he said.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will meet President Nayib Bukele, his Salvadoran counterpart, on Thursday in the southern Mexican town of Tapachula.
Mexico says the US backs its plan to beef up investment in development programmes in Central America and that this was recognised in the deal reached in Washington on June 7, which suspended threatened tariffs against Mexico in return for a promise to crack down on migrant flows. But much of the aid the US has mentioned has either been earmarked or refers to loan guarantees rather than concrete investments.