Mon, 16 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit four Latin American countries this week, with a focus on Venezuela's crisis, the surge of migrants at the U.S.southern border, and more security cooperation, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

Pompeo will travel to Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador from Thursday to Sunday, the State Department said.

In Argentina, he will attend the second Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial where he will also hold bilateral meetings with regional counterparts, including from Chile and the Bahamas, a senior State Department official told reporters.

"We see this week's ministerial as an important step in bolstering our collective efforts to address these threats and protect our hemisphere from the scourge of terrorism," the official said.

In Ecuador, Pompeo, making the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in nine years, will discuss increased economic and trade ties, fighting drug trafficking and the surge of migrants from Venezuela fleeing that country's economic crisis.

Ecuador estimates that some 600,000 Venezuelan citizens entered the country in 2018 via the Colombian border, most of whom continue on toward Peru.

"They have been taking a heavy pressure of inbound migration from the people expelled by Mr. Maduro's chaos in Venezuela, and they have been doing great work," the official said.

Most Western countries, including the United States, back opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's head of state.

Guaido, denounced by President Nicolas Maduro as a U.S. puppet, says Maduro's re-election last year was not legitimate.

In Mexico, Pompeo's discussions with his Mexican counterpart, Marcelo Ebrard, will "cover a broad agenda," including migration from Central America to the United States, the official said.

The flow of Central American migrants passing through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States has led to both friction and cooperation between the United States and Mexico, which share a 2,000-mile (3,000-km) border and are leading trade partners.

U.S. officials say asylum seekers, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have inundated the U.S. side of the border. The three countries suffer from gang violence and political turmoil.

President Donald Trump's administration has responded by restricting the ability of migrants to seek asylum and cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the three impoverished countries, punishing them for the northward migration.

It will be the topic of conversations in Pompeo's stop in El Salvador, where he will also discuss tackling nacro-trafficking, another State Department official said.

Pompeo will extend a lease for the U.S. use of facilities at the Comalapa Airport, which are used in support of counter-narcotics operations, the official added.

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