Central American leaders plead for more U.S. anti-drug help

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 12:16 AM

Unnerved by the explosion of drug trafficking in the region, Central American governments are petitioning the Obama administration for more funds to strengthen their police and social programs, saying current U.S. aid is insufficient.

President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador presented a $900 million Central American anti-drug-trafficking plan to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday, and asked the Obama administration to help fund it.

But with the administration under pressure to cut costs, it may be difficult for the Central Americans to win more U.S. aid.

The U.S. government has spent about $1.8 billion over three years to fight drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America through the Merida Initiative.

"There should be a bigger presence of the United States government in Central America beyond the Merida Initiative, which was created to emphasize the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico," Funes said in an interview.

"The amounts provided for Central America are small," he added. "They don't compensate us for the efforts we're making."

Clinton recently expressed her concern about the growing problem in Central America, where homicide rates have jumped and seizures of cocaine have soared.

Clinton told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations recently that "the small countries in Central America do not have" Mexico's capacity to fight drug traffickers. "So we are working to try to enhance what we have in Central America," she said.

Funes said that Clinton "was sympathetic" to the proposal he presented Wednesday, and he suggested forming a U.S.-Central American group to study it.

But one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that because of U.S. budget constraints there would probably not be "exponential growth" in anti-drug aid for the region.

In a sign of the growing reach of Mexico's drug cartels, President Obama for the first time included Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica on the annual U.S. list of major drug-trafficking nations, which was released this month. Guatemala and Panama were already on the list.

Costa Rica's president, Laura Chinchilla, recently called for "a much more vigorous U.S. presence" to combat drug trafficking, according to Clinton. Even President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, a frequent U.S. critic, has publicly appealed for American help in fighting the narcotics gangs.

The Merida Initiative has provided Central America with $258 million over three years.

"But if you break down the amounts each country receives, it's $8 [million] or $9 million [per year], which is not nearly enough to carry out the fight against the drug traffickers efficiently," Panama's ambassador, Jaime Aleman, said in an interview. His country's vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, is scheduled to meet with Clinton on Thursday.

U.S. officials said annual U.S. anti-drug aid to Central America has roughly doubled from the $50 million provided in the first year of the Merida Initiative.

In an effort to improve the anti-drug fight, U.S. officials are seeking to better coordinate with other government donors and to provide regional U.S. advisers to help all the Central American countries with gun trafficking, forensics and other issues, officials say.

Funes said the Central American anti-trafficking plan would establish joint patrols by the countries' security forces and acquire new technology for sharing intelligence. The plan would also expand social programs to prevent young people from getting involved in drug trafficking.

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