Central Americans See Peril in Bush's Anti-Drug Priorities

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 29, 2007

MEXICO CITY, Nov. 28 -- The funding imbalance in the Bush administration's new anti-drug plan, which would send 10 times as much aid to Mexico as to all seven Central American nations combined, is generating anxiety in Central America.

A packet of six documents obtained by The Washington Post shows that no Central American nation would receive more than $10 million and most would get less than $3 million, in contrast to $500 million proposed for Mexico. Central American political leaders and activists expressed concerns that if most of the money goes to Mexico, drug cartels will shift their operations to countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

Materials being presented by the Bush administration to Congress describe the Central American isthmus as "the primary transit point for people, drugs and arms destined for the United States." But several Central American activists and officials said in interviews Wednesday that the $50 million Bush proposal for the seven countries is insufficient given the region's role in drug trafficking.

"It's clear -- it's obvious -- that in economic terms Central America is not a priority for the United States," said Jeannette Aguilar, an analyst at the University of Central America in San Salvador. "This is a regional problem that needs a regional solution."

President Bush announced the aid package Oct. 22 after a series of meetings with Mexican President Felipe Calder¿n. The total $550 million package is included in a supplemental war funding bill being considered by Congress. State Department officials have said they will seek an additional $900 million for Central America and Mexico in the next two years.

State Department spokesman Rob McInturff said the aid plan is still being developed and is likely to be adjusted by Congress. "We want to look at the narco-trafficking problem holistically in a way that includes Mexico and Central America," he said. "This is a good starting point."

The proposal is the largest international anti-drug effort by the United States since the launch seven years ago of a program to fight drug trafficking and Marxist rebels in Colombia, at an annual cost of about $600 million.

Calder¿n sought the aid package because of escalating violence between drug cartels, blamed for more than 4,000 deaths in the past 18 months. Analysts and Mexican law enforcement officials say rival cartels are trying to capitalize on power vacuums left by the arrest of several drug kingpins.

Central American nations banded together to seek help in combating drug cartels and street gangs seen as largely responsible for the astoundingly high homicide rates in the region. In 2005, for instance, the murder rate in El Salvador was 56 per 100,000 people -- six times the world average, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called for a significant increase in aid to the Central American nations at a recent hearing. "Central American officials feel that they will not be able to confront threats effectively without more assistance," Lugar said. "They fear that gang members and drug traffickers will flee Mexico for Central America, where it will be easier to operate."

In Guatemala, drug traffickers were suspected in the killings of dozens of local candidates and political workers before the first round of presidential voting in September, and are widely believed to have infiltrated most government institutions in the country.

"Guatemala is the country most at risk when the Mexican cartels look for new territory," said Diego de Le¿n, a political analyst at the Myrna Mack Foundation, a human rights organization based in Guatemala City. "What could happen is that the problem just spreads out, and we're the closest."

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