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

Guatemala would be the largest Central American beneficiary of aid in the plan, receiving $9.2 million, followed by Honduras, with $7.4 million, and El Salvador, at $4.9 million, according to the documents. Costa Rica would receive $2.7 million, primarily to improve maritime interdiction efforts, and Panama $2.3 million, mostly for vetting special police units. Nearly $6 million is set aside for regional projects and $14.8 million has yet to be designated.

One of the surprises for Central American officials was the aid planned for Nicaragua. It would get $1.9 million for projects including the vetting of special forces and fingerprinting networks -- less than any country except tiny Belize, which is slated for $740,000.

Nicaraguans were "bizarrely puzzled" when the package was unveiled, a Nicaraguan official said in an interview. "We're not going to turn down free money, but it's not much," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nicaragua has recently been praised by international watchdog groups for an aggressive crackdown on drug trafficking that has included high-profile arrests and large seizures. "We felt we were being punished for our success," the official said, adding that Nicaragua has asked for double the amount outlined in the administration proposal.

In Washington, some lawmakers contend the Bush administration is punishing Nicaragua because President Daniel Ortega is a frequent critic of the United States. Ortega led the Sandinista government that ruled Nicaragua and was the target of U.S.-backed rebel forces known as the contras in the 1980s.

"Guatemala and El Salvador have been good friends and Nicaragua under Ortega has not, and the money breakdown in the request shows it," a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said.

The Central American aid package seeks to modernize law enforcement with a variety of high-tech equipment for fingerprint databases and Internet-based investigation networks, according to details of the plan. The proposal also would create an Internet-based system designed to speed repatriation of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans held in U.S. detention centers by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the documents.

Under the proposal, all the Central American countries would receive money to send officers to the International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador for classes in port and aviation security and interdiction of smuggled firearms. Also, an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent would be based in Central America to help with firearms interdiction and gang prevention efforts, as well as to coordinate training.

A $2 million program would create an Internet-based system to alert Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador when their citizens held at U.S. detention centers are scheduled for repatriation. The system would link to an existing program that allows the home countries to issue travel documents via the Internet, cutting the time its citizens are in U.S. custody. While not specifically related to drug trafficking, the program is being pitched by the Bush administration as a crime prevention tool because it would be linked to the FBI's criminal fingerprint database, according to one of the documents.

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