LiveAtState: U.S. Security Policy in Central America

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Luis E. Arreaga
Washington, DC
May 7, 2015

This transcript is also available in Spanish.

PETER VELASCO: Welcome to "Live At State, the U.S. State Department’s interactive format on the Internet and by video, one of its platforms for dialogue with the international media. My name is Peter Velasco and I am pleased to welcome all our participants of Central America. Our guest today is the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Ambassador Luis Arreaga, and we will speak about civil security in Central America. Firstly, let me explain our segment, the participants that are following us on-line can post your questions on the lower part of your screen at "Questions for the Officer". We appreciate your questions and will try to answer as many questions as possible during the time we have available. If at any time during this chat you have problems sending your questions, you can send us an e-mail to If you would like to continue the dialogue with us after the chat, you can follow us on Twitter: @StateDept, @StateINL, y @USAenEspanol. And now we can begin. It is my greatest pleasure to present U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Ambassador Luis Arreaga. Ambassador, thank you for your participation today.

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Thank you very much, Peter. It is my pleasure to be here and to be able to participate in this conversation with our friends of the Hemisphere. Approximately one year ago, more than 50,000 minors abandoned their homes and undertook a very dangerous journey to the United States. This crisis that it caused truly worried us. Because it seems to us that these migratory flows are a reflection of the difficult situation that many families face in Central America. Situation that is characterized by the lack of security and the lack of financial opportunities in the region.

Due to this, President Obama met with the countries of the region and began a conversation to see how, together, we could work to address this problem. The Central American countries developed a strategy called “The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle”, and President Obama decided to support this alliance. And he requested of Congress, I believe for the first time in history, one billion dollars for Central America to support three areas: Prosperity, security and better management processes of the government.

The area that I am in charge of is security, and am very willing to speak about this topic and discuss the types of programs that we are going to support in these areas.

PETER VELASCO: Very well, we are going to start with our first question that I believe has to do with what President Obama has done. This question comes to us from Colombia, NTN 24, Jesús Prado, who asks: In spite of President Barack Obama's executive action on the subject of immigration, the drama of thousands of Central American illegal immigrants rises even more when the initiative is blocked in the American Congress. What will the administration do in the time that remains to provide a definite solution to this problem?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Thank you very much for your question. The government of President Obama is definitely engaged in the protection of the immigrants who are in country and has issued executive orders in order to begin to manage this issue. However, obviously this issue is one that requires Congress' participation, and he has full initiative to discuss with Congress a way to find a more permanent solution to this problem.

PETER VELASCO: Changing the subject, the second question is from Radio Nacional de Honduras, Heber Rolando Mejía Zavala. Who asks: Do you think that the efforts made by the governments in the fight against drug trafficking are sufficient, despite their limited resources for this titanic task? In this sense, how can your government fortify the processes to eliminate and to consolidate the judicial instructions in these Latin American nations?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: That is another very good question because you have asked me about a very key issue on what we are trying to do in the region. One of our main additives is trying to fortify the institutions that are in charge of Law compliance. We are talking about police, we are talking about public prosecutors, we are talking about courts and judges, we are talking about the penitentiary institutions. We know that in the long term, it is the only way to approach the subject of drug trafficking and organized crime. But we also know that this type of initiative takes time. So a series of special units of investigation and other activities have been established to provide an immediate impact on the population in terms of security. We have various activities in Honduras. We have model police stations, and we are in the process of working continuously with the Government of Honduras in the establishment of a special program in San Pedro Sula which tries to reduce the high incidence of homicides in high risk areas.

PETER VELASCO: Following this subject, Luisa Pineda Abau of 100% Noticias de Nicaragua asks: How do you rate the work of the Nicaraguan authorities in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, and what do you think of the security model in that country?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We know that Nicaragua, like all the countries of the region, faces a difficult challenge with drug trafficking, the subject of demand reduction and we know that efforts are being made to approach those issues. I believe that, as in all the countries, there is much left to do, because it is quite a difficult problem.

PETER VELASCO: And the next question: What conclusion can the United States make on the significant rise of homicides in El Salvador? Mostly committed by the feared gangs MS13 and Mara 18, and even the attacks and ambushes to the security forces of the State. And also, another question, does the plan of the United States, the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, replace other markets operating in CARSI?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: On the contrary, the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle is a very comprehensive program. It is a program that works on the topics of financial security, security of the population and the subject of governability. You have spoken to me about El Salvador. Yes, indeed, we are totally conscious of the problems that exist in El Salvador in the area of murders, and our security programs are designed to fortify the police institutions of El Salvador. But also to work with the civil society. Because one of the things that we have learned over time is that governments are not the only entities that have to take measures. There must be a type of alliance and cooperation between the civil society and the police. And that is the only way to approach those problems effectively. And, for El Salvador, we have activities that we are discussing with the Salvadoran authorities in order to bring them forward.

PETER VELASCO: In Guatemala, Paulina Albani of Siglo XXI asks: Presently, what are the policies that come to Central America to restrain drug trafficking?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We have a series of programs. As I mentioned, we have the program for the fortification of law enforcement. Of the institutions that are in charge of compliance with the Law. We also have the establishment of special units of investigation that work with the authorities. In the case of Guatemala, with the Guatemalan authorities, they are dedicated to investigations that seek to break-up the drug trafficking networks.

PETER VELASCO: The following question comes from José P. Monegro. The increase of the investment of the United States on the war against drugs in Central America has caused a new increase of the use of drug trafficking networks. What plans does the United States have to counteract these effects in the Caribbean region, particularly in the Dominican Republic?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We are definitely conscious that the rise in programs in Central America has an impact they call “navegía”. If you tighten on one side, it goes to the other. We are very aware that there has been an increase in the flow of drugs that come from South America and is traveling through the Caribbean. I was recently in the Dominican Republic and had a conversation with the Dominican authorities. We continue to try to tie our cooperation with the Dominican Republic in the war against drug trafficking.

PETER VELASCO: I want to remind the participants that you can send us your questions by typing them on the lower part of your screens titled, “Questions for the Official”. That way we can continue with more questions.

The following is from Radio América de Honduras, Juan Bautista Vásquez: Do you consider that the United States Government should provide greater technical support and financial strength to the plans on the war against drug trafficking that the Government of Honduras is taking on now?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We have a very close relationship with the Government of Honduras and have a series of programs in which drug trafficking is being addressed. Indeed, the Government of Honduras has taken quite a positive and quite an aggressive attitude against these groups of drug traffickers. They have captured many of those they call “drug trafficking lords”. So, in that sense, we consider that the programs that we have with Honduras are effective, and I believe that the level of assistance that we have is adequate for the types of problems that we have. Obviously, more can always be done, and this is a problem that all governments face. That we have limited resources, so we try to do what we can with what we have, but there has indeed been a sharp increase. And part of this program that President Obama has presented is a program that almost doubles the resources of our programs, not only for citizen security assistance, but for financial prosperity, and for the better handling of the government as well.

PETER VELASCO: We will go to Mexico, Alberto Huertas de Zum de la Noticia de Colombia asks from Mexico: What does the United States think about the Mexican outlook, given we are but a few months from the regional elections and with precedent of the 43 missing in Guerrero and the situation in Jalisco?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Indeed, the disappearance of these students was a tragedy, and we know that the Mexican government has taken strong measures to investigate. Regarding the Mexican elections, I can obviously not comment and should not comment. But, indeed, the relationship we have with Mexico with the Merida Initiative is very close, and I believe that together we have achieved sufficient advances in the full range of security and justice issues.

PETER VELASCO: From Guatemala, Astrid Hernández, Telediario asks: What type of cooperation does the United States have with Central America, mainly Guatemala, so that inhumane acts against illegal immigrants stop, and regarding the war against drug trafficking, is there a specific economic amount that you use in the problems to eradicate it?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: With Guatemala we have many problems. I cannot provide the economic amount at this time. I suggest you request this information from our embassy in Guatemala. But yes, regarding human rights, it is a very important issue for us, and I know that it is also very important in Guatemala. While we support programs for the Guatemalan authorities, human rights is an issue that is always, always present.

PETER VELASCO: From Honduras, Canal 10, Alfredo Guzmán: Historically, our country was considered one of the main drug trafficking routes. Do you think this has changed in the past months?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: In the case of Honduras, there has been a reduction in drug trafficking air traces. This is due to the measures that the government has taken. Obviously, due to Honduras' geographical location, it continues to be a transit route, and we will continue to work with the Government of Honduras to try to prohibit its use as a transit route.

PETER VELASCO: Following this subject, Susana Flete asks: As a result of the rise in the activity of drugs in the Caribbean, are you considering to increase the resources allocated to stop drug trafficking in this area?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Indeed, there will be an increase in the budget for the Caribbean program. I do not know the amount, but we know we have to focus on the Caribbean and continue to work with our allies in the Caribbean. Because we know that it may be a problem that they will face.

In the case of the Caribbean, one of the characteristics of our programs is to promote regional cooperation, because we know that it is an enormous area. And it is necessary that the countries of the Caribbean work together, and in fact, we are doing it again within our program.

PETER VELASCO: Again, we ask that you type your questions in the "Questions for the Officer" box. They will be answered by video, but also ask that you please include your name and affiliation with your question, please, so we know from where and from whom the questions come.

The following question is: How does the United States respond to the calls for a new approach to address the underlying factors that propel the immigration of minors from Central America? And, how do you respond to the call to leave the security and drug problem behind?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Well, actually, the proposal that President Obama has presented to Congress addresses the issue comprehensively. Of those billion dollars, a little more than 400 million are designed to promote prosperity. Whether to improve competition, provide better financial opportunities, infrastructure, everything related to the economy. So, most of the funds we are requesting from Congress are for the economic areas. On the other hand, the term in English, governance, is dedicated to work with national institutions, to improve transparency and accountability of the governments for its citizens. So, the funds for security are less, and are not only about interdiction. It is about trying to find a way for the authorities to work more closely with communities, with youth organizations. Because we consider that it is absolutely essential that the civil society works with the police. It is the only way to reduce crime and the only way for security to increase. As security increases, there will be a better environment for financial opportunities.

PETER VELASCO: Carlos Regalt of DyT News in Guatemala asks: Given that one of the most important structural causes regarding violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as well is the issue of young people at risk, how will you address this problem under the new cooperation plan with the region? Are there changes to what you have been doing to date?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Actually, we have two types of programs. We have what we call model police stations. These model police stations are based on a system of the use of crime statistics and the existing relationship between the civil society and the police to address crime more effectively. This is a longer term agreement. But we are working with AID to design specific programs for high risk areas. Therefore, we are working with the police. We are working with NGOs. We are working with the Church, and are pooling our resources to address them in the high risk areas. For example, we started in the Chamelecón area in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where we are designing a program which I believe is very innovative and has been successful in other areas. But, most importantly, it is dedicated to direct intervention at all school levels - from primary, to high school and universities. The idea is to work with young people from the start.

PETER VELASCO: From the Dominican Republic, José Monegro of Periódico El Día asks: Which strategies is the United States pushing with their allies in the region to fight money laundering as a result of drug trafficking? And, is there sufficient control in our countries?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We have programs that try to improve the capacity of the financial units. We have a regional program that is addressing this topic. Obviously, when we are speaking of criminals and of money launderers, if one manages to exclude them in one way, they immediately find another way. So we must fight a constant battle. But, as we work with the regional authorities and their capacity to work with us, their ability to detect money laundering increases.

PETER VELASCO: Alfredo Guzmán of Canal 10 de Honduras asks: The extraditions of Honduran drug lords to the United States has made an impact on the drug market in the region. What is your recommendation to stop the replacement of new drug trafficking lords, and that extraditions and new lords become ongoing?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Extraditions are one of the most effective instruments to dismantle drug trafficking networks. But, obviously, others are created and they reorganize. But, our experience has been that extraditions have quite an important impact within these organizations. It is a war we must continue to fight, and I would also say that the Government of Honduras has taken very strong measures to fight against those groups, to capture and extradite those we have requested through legal means.

PETER VELASCO: We return to Mexico, Maria H. García from Notimex asks: What role has Mexico played to prevent the immigration flow from Central America to the United States? And, what else could it additionally do?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Mexico has played a very important role. I believe that one of the most important roles has been the regional cooperation that it has established with the Central American countries. This is something that is relatively new, but is quite effective and positive. We have also cooperated through the Merida Initiative to improve the capacity of the Mexican authorities to be able to control their borders. We know that there are very large borders and that they are of very difficult access, so we work with the Mexican authorities so that they develop their best capacity to control and to know who is crossing the border and where they are going. So, I would say that Mexico has played quite an important role, and we are very grateful for that.

PETER VELASCO: Now El Salvador, Tomás Guevara of El Diario de Hoy asks: Could you expand a bit on the proposals that the United States is working on to support the police work in the war against crime in El Salvador that you mentioned at the beginning of this video conference?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Yes, in El Salvador we have model police stations. But we are also going to try to always work with the Salvadoran authorities to try to look for this special model that it has been developed to identify high risk areas and to develop comprehensive programs that we work on with the police, that we work on with the NGOs and the civil society to try to reduce homicide rates significantly.

PETER VELASCO: Again we ask you to type your questions in the "Questions for the Officer" box and don't forget to include your name and affiliation.

We continue with a question from Enrique Pretel of Reuters Central America, who asks: The Government of Honduras is managing to reduce the homicide rate with a policy of military security which is criticized by activists and human rights. What is your opinion of the use of military forces for civil security issues, and do you consider that these types of policies place human rights at risk, as the NGOs claim?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: The use of military authority for police work is not new or novel. We use it in the United States, for example, in the case of emergencies, like ho we used our National Guard recently in Baltimore, and it has been used on other occasions. In the case of Honduras, each State has its sovereign right to decide what is best for the country. We continue to discuss with the Honduran authorities, and continue trying, in our role from my office, which is to try to find the way to support the civil police institutions, which that same government says must have the responsibility of the security of their citizens. But, they have made the decision at this time, due to the urgency of the crisis, to use military authority.

PETER VELASCO: We return to the Dominican Republic, Susana Flete of Teleantillas, Channel 2, asks: My question is, how do you rate the war against drug trafficking on the island of Hispaniola, especially in the Dominican Republic?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: According to statistics, there is an average of 60 metric tons of drugs that flow through the island known as Hispaniola. The Government of the Dominican Republic has been quite an important partner for us, and they are putting all their efforts towards the issue. Obviously, more can always be done, but we have good cooperation with them and we will continue to have it.

PETER VELASCO: Lucía Leal of Efe Agency in Washington asks: Many experts attribute the reduction of flow of Central American minors to the United States to the reinforcement of the southern border of Mexico, which deports many more immigrants than before, and not as much to the actions of the countries of the North Triangle. What is your opinion of this analysis?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: There are always going to be various opinions on the reasons. We believe that there has been a reduction in the flow of immigrants. We believe that part of the reason is that we have provided more reliable information on our immigration policy. Last year, the information was that it was very easy to reach the United States, and that one was protected on arrival. I believe that there has been an information campaign, and that the idea that the United States and the North Triangle countries will work together to address the immigration issue comprehensively has provided some hope. In fact, the governments of the region have taken measures to approach those topics.

PETER VELASCO: Now from Panama, Alexis Charis, asks: Central America became a passage for drugs in a chain of illegal businesses that surpassed its borders. Could we say which regions have progressed better in confronting these crimes?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: Unfortunately, as we are dealing with transnational crime organizations, they are quite flexible. Yes, indeed, there has been progress, but there has also been an evolution in terms of how these criminal organizations work. For example, we know that the organizations dedicated to drug trafficking also deal with human trafficking and other activities. There have been improvements throughout the region, but, there have also been changes in the ways that these criminal organizations operate. And that is what keeps us looking for the means to know where they are going, what they are doing, and trying to cut them off from new activities.

PETER VELASCO: From Honduras, Alfredo Guzmán, Canal 10: About the actions against gangs, can you tell us part of the strategy that you implemented on the short-term, particularly in the North Triangle, and in El Salvador you corralled them, and in Honduras we present them with borders to prevent them from emigrating to our territory?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: We are also addressing the gang issue comprehensively. Obviously in compliance with the Law, which has specialized units that investigate gangs. But, we also have very important education programs for young people. We work with schools, we work with education institutions, we work with the police to provide clearer information on the risks that gangs have on young people. We do it from several points of view.

PETER VELASCO: And, finally, the last question: How does the United States train its citizens to carry out a more important role in crime prevention and working more effectively with the police?

LUIS E. ARREAGA: That is a fundamental part of what we are trying to do. We have learned over many years that to be in in this type of activity, the participation of the civil society is absolutely essential. And, we are not only trying to fortify the police institutions, but also trying to fortify NGOs as well. NGOs play a very important part here. I have visited the region during the last year, and have been quite impressed with the commitment that NGOs have to working against violence. And we work with them in all the countries.

PETER VELASCO: Ambassador, we give you the final words, in case you might have any additional comment. If you would like to speak on any subjects we have not addressed today – please.

LUIS E. ARREAGA: I would only want to add that the United States is truly committed in supporting the Central American countries. I have worked on these issues for many decades and the program that President Obama has requested is truly a comprehensive program. A program that not only provides money to other countries, but a program that is going to support the measures that these countries are taking. And that is something relatively new. So then, what I would ask from our listeners it is that they give us a little space to work on the subject. We know that Central America has quite difficult problems, we know that well enough and we are fully committed to help the societies of Central America address those subjects.

PETER VELASCO: That is all the time that we have today. We appreciate your questions and thank Ambassador Arreaga for his participation with us today. We will send an audio and video link of our chat today by e-mail to all our participants shortly. And again, if you want to continue the dialog with us after this program, you can follow us on Twitter: @StateDept, @USAenEspañol. And we hope to be able to dialog with you again in the future and wish you a lovely day. Thank you very much.