The leaders of Guatemala and Honduras signed a bilateral agreement creating a customs union this week, marking the first concrete action in a regional development plan designed to decrease illegal immigration to the U.S. by improving local economic opportunities.
The customs union agreement was signed during a meeting held among officials and business leaders from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — on Thursday in the Honduran Pacific coastal city of Tela.
The gathering was the first official meeting of the Alliance for the Prosperity of the Northern Triangle Plan, a regional development plan launched in the wake of last year’s unprecedented wave of undocumented migrants fleeing Central America for the U.S.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he’ll request $1 billion from Congress to support the plan. Vice-President Joe Biden is traveling to Guatemala next week to discuss progress with Northern Triangle leaders.
At the meeting in Tela, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez called the customs union “the step we’ve been waiting to take for 64 years in Central America.”
Customs offices are scheduled to be removed along the two countries’ shared border in December of this year. Authorities and business leaders hope the move will cut costs and speed up transportation of goods throughout the region.
El Salvador has also been invited to join the customs union.
“Here, we’re proving that not only Honduras but the whole Northern Triangle is following a new path of peace and prosperity for all,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said in reference to the customs union and the development plan.
The plan is aimed at improving economic opportunity, citizen safety, social development and democratic institutions. Hernández acknowledged the link between economics and security.
“It doesn’t matter how many highway projects we inaugurate, no one will use them if they’re not safe,” he said.
The Honduran president stressed the need to have unified immigration requirements to enter the Northern Triangle countries. He said he hoped the three countries could integrate their immigration and police databases, “allowing our citizens to move freely between our three countries.
According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Northern Triangle shows some of the most critical poverty levels in the region.