Catholic News Service photo
Father Oscar Enriquez, pastor of the Holy Spirit Parish in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, poses for a photo in 2010.
Catholic News Service photo
Father Oscar Enriquez, pastor of the Holy Spirit Parish in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, poses for a photo in 2010.

MEXICO CITY — The third presidential debate promised a foreign policy focus, but after participants paid scant attention to Latin America, church workers there spoke of the region's importance to U.S. foreign policy.

"U.S foreign policy has a lot to do with Mexico" and Latin America, said Father Oscar Enriquez, director of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center in Ciudad Juarez. He listed trade -- which is booming as companies bring back manufacturing from Asia to the Mexico-U.S. border region -- as a top issue.

Father Enriquez also mentioned problems such as a flow of U.S. guns into Mexico and drug consumption in the United States, both of which feed Mexico's cartel and organized crime violence.

A crackdown on organized crime and drug cartels, along with turf wars over trafficking routes to the United States, has claimed more than 50,000 lives in Mexico since 2006 -- 10,000 of those in Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas.

"The United States has to be co-responsible for the situation in Mexico," said Father Enriquez, who wants U.S. support for security projects in Latin America to be conditional on human rights being respected.

Neither President Barack Obama nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney mentioned the murderous situation in some Latin American countries, including Honduras, where the homicide rate is more than 80 per 100,000 residents. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, supplanted Ciudad Juarez as the most murderous city in the world.

"Honduras is seeing the drug war at its highest," said Juan Sheenan, country director for Catholic Relief Services in Honduras, which has become a transit country for cocaine flowing northward out of South America.

"People don't realize what it takes to send these drugs to the United States," Sheenan said.

Making matters worse in Honduras: the political fallout of a 2009 coup, which has weakened the country's political and security institutions and led to increased corruption and impunity.

The security situation has made it difficult for Catholic Relief Services to carry out projects in Honduras' urban areas, Sheenan said.

Climate change also has affected the region as droughts have aggravated hunger problems in rural areas. Poverty and violence have led to an increased flow of migrants from Central America, Sheenan said.

Migration used to dominate discussions of Latin America in the United States, but the issue has been less prominent in this presidential election and was not mentioned in the Oct. 22 debate.

The migration of Mexicans across the border has tumbled over the past five years due, in part, to a poor U.S. economy. The number returning -- voluntarily or otherwise -- is now larger than the group going North.

"Some sort of comprehensive immigration reform is still the biggest issue in Latin America," said Rick Jones, deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice at Catholic Relief Services, based in El Salvador.

The region is diverse and countries confront different challenges.

Mexico and Central America confront issues of violence -- although Mexico has emerged recently as an attractive emerging market with stable macroeconomic indicators and respectable economic growth expected to top 3.5 percent in 2012.

South America also has shown positive signs, Jones said. Brazil's economy has emerged and poverty has plunged.

Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez remains prone to buying regional support with cheap petroleum, but Jones said, "the economic power of Brazil is more important in the region" for exerting influence.

During the debate, Romney called Latin America a "huge opportunity," and pointed out, "Its economy is a big as China's."

Fact-checkers later credited China with having a larger economy and made light of Mali receiving more mentions than Mexico in the debate.