MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us. Welcome to this background call to preview the Secretary of State’s travel to Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and El Salvador. As a reminder, today’s call is on background, and you may refer to the three officials participating as Senior State Department Official One, Senior State Department Official Two, and Senior State Department Official Three. For your situational awareness and not for reporting, we are fortunate to have with us today [Senior State Department Official One], [Senior State Department Official Two], and [Senior State Department Official Three]. The contents of this background call is embargoed until the call’s conclusion, and with that, I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to everybody for taking the time to join the call. It’s a pleasure to speak with you today to preview this week’s second Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial in Buenos Aires. This is a follow-on to the ministerial that we hosted here at the State Department in Washington last December to focus our neighbors’ attention on the problem of terrorism here at home. Secretary Pompeo is going to be leading the U.S. delegation, and that underscores how seriously this administration takes the terrorist threat here in the Western Hemisphere that we face from a range of groups like Hizballah, ISIS, al-Qaida, and others.
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. As we’ll address with ministerial participants, terrorism is a global threat that affects us all. Here in the Western Hemisphere and in the U.S., terrorism may sometimes seem far away, a problem for the Middle East or a problem for Afghanistan, but it’s not. It’s a threat here too, and we can’t afford to be complacent.
The timing of this ministerial is not an accident, because this Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the Hizballah attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which serves as a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant of this ongoing threat here in the Western Hemisphere. The AMIA bombing was carried out by the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah with Iranian support and direction. It’s been 25 years since the bombing, but the threat from Iran and Hizballah to this hemisphere remains undiminished.
So let me say a few words about what the United States is doing to address this threat. For the past two years, the administration has led unprecedented efforts to elevate focus on counterterrorism in the Western Hemisphere. We convened the first Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial in December of last year, hosting 13 key partners here at the State Department.
And I’d like to give you a few quick examples of the concrete results we’re seeing as a result of this cooperation. Last year, Argentina froze the assets of 14 members of the Barakat Clan. This is an extended family with close ties to Hizballah. Brazil followed up by arresting Assad Ahmad Barakat, the leader of the family and a key Hizballah financier. He is now in jail awaiting extradition to Paraguay.
Last month, Paraguay extradited a Hizballah supporter to the United States to face money laundering charges in Florida, and Peru is trying a Hizballah operative on terrorism charges. In addition, a number of Latin American governments regularly participate in the U.S.-Europol-led Law Enforcement Coordination Group, or LECG. This is a 30-member body that focuses on countering Hizballah’s terrorist activities and other illicit activities.
This proactive counterterrorism work wouldn’t be possible without the help of our Latin American partners. As Secretary Pompeo highlighted in Brussels some time ago, this renewed engagement with our friends and partners is a top priority under this administration. As Secretary Pompeo said in Beirut in March, “The United States will continue to bring unprecedented pressure to bear on Iran until it ceases all malign behavior, including that which is carried out by Hizballah.”
I look forward to furthering that work at the ministerial later this week and look forward to your questions now. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Great. We’re going to turn it – thanks, [Senior State Department Official One]. [Senior State Department Official Two] now has some opening remarks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks, everybody. It’s really nice to have a chance to talk about the Secretary’s travel, not just the ministerial that [Senior State Department Official One] was just talking about but also the bilateral parts of his visit in Argentina and in Ecuador, and then I’ll ask [Senior State Department Official Three] to talk about the Central America and Mexico parts of the trip.
So first a little overview. The Secretary in April went down to Chile, and he touched on, in his remarks there, really sort of our overarching view of this, and that despite the challenges we face in some parts of the hemisphere, this is really a good-news story. And like he said, this is an incredible opportunity that we have in the Americas, and it’s a chance to really cement a future of democracy and prosperity for all the people of this hemisphere.
And so not only will the Secretary be participating in the ministerial and in events commemorating those who died, who were murdered in the AMIA bombing, but he’ll also meet bilaterally with Argentine President Mauricio Macri to really emphasize and reiterate our commitment to partnering for Argentina, not only at combatting terrorism and transnational crime but also on economic reform and promoting democratic governance.
We recognize the Argentines and the Argentine Government as a respected and a valuable partner both regionally and globally. They did a great job with their presidency of the G20 last year, and we share with them a really positive vision on how they can develop their energy sector, and we’re very supportive and we admire how they have been working very hard to align their economy and their economic policies with OECD principles. And we can’t really leave aside either the incredibly strong role and admirable role they have played in the Lima Group process to bring – or to help Venezuelans restore democracy and – in their government and in their country.
Now, in Buenos Aires the Secretary is also going to be holding bilateral meetings with the new foreign minister of Chile, Foreign Minister Ribera, and with Bahamian Foreign Minister Henfield, and we’re also going to be discussing with them joint projects on regional security, economic prosperity, and on democratic governance.
Now, after the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo and his delegation will travel up to Guayaquil, Ecuador on the 20th, and this is his very first trip to Ecuador as Secretary of State, and it’s the first time that we’ve had a secretary travel to Ecuador in nine years. The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, has really done a great job in guiding Ecuador on a new path. We’re eager to work with him to advance our shared interests with his government and with his country. We have a lot in common. We have a lot of shared goals with the Ecuadorans: working with them on democratic governance issues, expanding our economic ties and commercial ties with the country, expanding educational exchanges. And we’re working together very much on a lot of regional public safety and public security initiatives and – in fighting transnational crime, narcotrafficking. They are a good partner on maritime interdictions, for example.
And again, with the Ecuadorans I think it’s really important to emphasize the very impressive role they have played in the Quito process and in working to help restore democratic institutions, helping Venezuelans restore democratic institutions in their country. 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 on dealing with the – regionally with the public health and migration and refugee challenges, and they’ve been doing really admirable work and calling out what’s going on in Venezuela.
And I’ll like to turn it over now to [Senior State Department Official Three] to have a chance to talk a little bit about the rest of the trip after he’s wheels-up from Guayaquil.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Great. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official Two]. So from Guayaquil, the Secretary will head to Mexico City, where he’ll meet with Foreign Secretary Ebrard to cover a broad agenda, from our shared efforts to transform our commercial ties to the USMCA, to our joint commitment to promote opportunity and economic prosperity in southern Mexico, and of course our efforts to stem the flow of illegal migration before it reaches our shared border with Mexico.
Secretary Pompeo will then head to San Salvador, El Salvador, the first visit by the Secretary of State to that country in 10 years. Again, this is an opportunity for us to transform our bilateral relationship, as we’re doing in Brazil and Ecuador and Paraguay.
The Secretary looks forward to meeting President Bukele and welcomes his vision to build a stronger, more transparent, and self-reliant El Salvador, which we believe will lead to a bright future for the country.
While in San Salvador, the Secretary will reinforce our bilateral security cooperation, and to that end he’ll extend a lease for the U.S. use of facilities at the Comalapa Airport, which has played an important role for the United States in the region in support of counter-narcotics operations.
Joint efforts to combat drug trafficking, transnational crime, and gangs show our strong record of collaboration on security issues and a commitment to strengthening the rule of law. We’ll also work closely with El Salvador to promote good governance and transparency practices in foreign investment screening.
MODERATOR: Great. With that we can now open it up for questions. Apologies in advance, [Senior State Department Official One] has a previous commitment and he is not able to stay for the duration of the call. So let’s open it up for questions, please. Anna, thank you.
OPERATOR: Okay. And our first question comes from Shaun Tandon with AFP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing this call. Can I follow up with Senior Official Number Three? Security and migration – the administration of course has recently talked about reducing eligibility for migrants as they enter. What is the Secretary looking for in Mexico? Is he expecting Mexico to agree with this? And with El Salvador, the President earlier this year talked about cutting off aid to El Salvador. Is that consistent with what the Secretary is going to promoting in El Salvador? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Sure. So I’m confident – I’ll take your second question first – I’m confident that the Secretary and President Bukele will discuss the full range of ways that we can work together to counter illegal migration as well as the commitments that the Salvadorans have already made to work both towards economic prosperity as well as some migration interdiction.
On Mexico, I anticipate that there will be some discussion, but the Mexicans have already made it clear that the interim final rule that came out today is not going to impact Mexico or Mexicans, and so I don’t think that is going to be an issue. Mexico has made a number of major commitments, including increased enforcement through the deployment of their national guard throughout Mexico, and support for the expansion of the Migration Protection Protocols, the MPPs, across the entire southern border. And this will allow the United States to return many more people a day to Mexico. Those are going to continue in force as we move forward.
MODERATOR: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Courtney McBride with Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to follow up on Shaun’s question, what does the – sorry. How does the collapse of the potential deal with Guatemala affect the Secretary’s plans on immigration? And then additionally, what deliverable are you hoping to get from the meetings? Certainly on immigration, but also on counterterrorism, security cooperation, and economic development.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Could I ask you to reiterate the second part of the question? I’m not sure what you were getting at.
QUESTION: So just if you’re – if you anticipate any formal agreements coming out of certainly the ministerial, but also on the – out of the bilateral talks on immigration, on security cooperation, and economic development.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hey Courtney, this is Senior Official One. Let me take that part before handing the baton over.
What’s going to – what do we hope to accomplish; what are the deliverables coming out of the ministerial? Well, we want to adopt a communique, the details of which will include things like a call for domestic designations regimes throughout the regime so that countries have the same capabilities the United States does to impose sanctions on terrorist organizations and their financiers. So over the short run we would like to see more countries adopt those laws, and over the longer run we would like to work with countries in the region to do joint designations of terrorists. The model we have in mind is the TFTC in the Gulf, in which the United States has worked with Gulf partners to release a number of joint designations targeting groups like Hizballah, ISIS, and so on.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Great. And this is Number Three again. And what I would say on Guatemala is that we continue to work with the Guatemalans to achieve the shared goal of reducing illegal migration. We’re considering all options that will help us do so. We are still in active communications with them, so we can’t discuss internal or interagency deliberations.
I think in terms of your second – the second part of your question, the Secretary’s going to sort of reinforce and underline what we’re trying to accomplish in the region, as far as a regional approach. I don’t think he’s looking for new commitments, just a deepening of the existing commitments that both Mexico and Salvador have made.
MODERATOR: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing the call. To follow up on some of my colleagues’ questions, I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on if there’s anything, specifically in El Salvador, that the Secretary or the State Department is looking for to renew the funding to the Northern Triangle.
And then the Guatemalan Government has said it’s reached a verbal agreement with the U.S. on a safe third country agreement. Is that something you can speak to? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Second part first. So the – with the Guatemalans, as I just mentioned, we are still in discussions on a full range of options to reduce illegal migration. And I can’t really talk about any of those ongoing talks.
On the first part of the question about Salvador – so you’re – repeat the question for me. Let me make sure I get it right.
QUESTION: Are there any firm commitments that you’re looking for that would guarantee that some of this funding that’s been revoked would then be restored to these Northern Triangle countries?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Look, I think the President made it clear and the Secretary confirmed that the U.S. is seeking to see more progress from the Central American countries to combat the flows of illegal migration. So I think to that extent, the Secretary will be talking about the things that Salvador is doing and that President Bukele plans to do to continue to decrease those flows. We really can’t talk about those other things until we can get this migration crisis under control.
MODERATOR: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Meghan Gordon with S&P Global. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Do you expect any energy issues to be on the agenda when you talk about economic cooperation? And specifically the Mexican administration is effectively blocking the startup of a major national gas pipeline from Texas. Does the Secretary plan to engage the Mexican Government on that issue?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Why don’t we – we can share a little bit of this. Look, well, I’ll start with Argentina, where the Secretary’s starting his visit. This is a country with huge potential in – huge energy potential. And we’ve been impressed with the policies that the government of – the administration of Mauricio Macri has adopted in order to create new opportunities for investment, to create – to develop those resources. A lot of American firms are working in that area, and we’re very pleased that they’ve created the preconditions so that can take place. And we’re very optimistic about the prospects for future development of those opportunities. And I’m sure that the general topic would come up in the discussions.
We’ve worked along the Pacific Rim with a number of governments under our America Crece initiative as well to find ways to develop – to cooperate as – with the firms and sort of create the framework with these governments so that American firms and firms that are interested in free and fair and sort of open market principles can work in those countries and develop those opportunities.
In terms of regulatory issues regarding pipelines, I think we can just refer that back to the people who are responsible for those.
MODERATOR: Final question, please.
OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Nora Gamez with Miami Herald. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. USCIS director stated that he would not designate Venezuela for TPS. Does State Department agree with that decision, and do you foresee this could be a cause of friction with partners such as Ecuador, for example, that are receiving a huge number of Venezuelan refugees?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not going to – I’m going to disappoint you and I’m not going to go into the details of internal discussions within the administration regarding the first issue. We really admire the efforts of not just the Ecuadorans but of other governments in the Andean Ridge, and this will be a topic of discussion, I am sure, when the Secretary meets with his counterpart and with the president of Ecuador, the huge commitments that they’ve taken on in dealing with the chaos that Maduro administration has meted out in effectively expelling these many people. And we will certainly be talking with them about how to help them not only mitigate the problems and the challenges they’re facing right now, but also to continue to work with them so that together we help the Venezuelan people overcome this Maduro-imposed chaos.
MODERATOR: And with that, our – today’s background call is concluded. The embargo is now lifted. Thank you again to [Senior State Department Official One], [Senior State Department Official Two], and [Senior State Department Official Three] for their help with today’s matters and look forward to seeing you soon. Thank you.