Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan sought help in combating gang violence and establishing trade relations during an evening meeting Thursday with Elias Antonio Saca, president of El Salvador, the country that many of Maryland's immigrants once called home.
Duncan (D) said his primary goal in visiting the Central American nation was to seek business ties with Salvadoran companies. But he broadened the four-day mission after a pair of gang-related stabbings in Montgomery last week and asked for El Salvador's cooperation in fighting violence involving Latino youths in the Washington region.
Meeting in a conference room at the presidential residence, Duncan asked Saca to help ensure that law enforcement agencies here and in Montgomery share intelligence about suspected gang members with ties to both countries. He also said he would like the Salvadoran government to facilitate the extradition of suspected gang members.
Saca pledged to collaborate with Duncan and other U.S. officials and said he would visit Montgomery with some of his law enforcement officers. "The problem has become international. It has globalized," Saca said in Spanish. "Whatever help you need, we are at your service."
Saca did most of the talking at the hour-long meeting, his comments translated for Duncan by a member of the Montgomery delegation. They discussed investment opportunities in El Salvador and the United States, the national identity cards that many Salvadorans would like U.S. authorities to accept, a proposal to allow Salvadorans abroad to vote in elections back home and oil prices, even pupusas, Salvadoran stuffed tortillas.
"I think it was a very productive day," Duncan said. "We have a commitment from the president to work on some of these issues."
The visit, believed to be the first of its kind for a county chief from the United States, could enhance Duncan's stature as he plans a run for Maryland governor and might cement his relationship with the Latino community, which has begun to show influence at the polls.
"He's broadening his horizons," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's), one of several Latinos elected in the past four years.
"Other governors realize that we're living in a world in which our borders don't end because of the Internet, because of technology," said Ramirez, who was not part of the delegation. "I think you have to start having that vision."
But the trip is not without political perils. Many Salvadorans in Montgomery do not support Saca, whose government invited Duncan for the four-day visit. And the trip, which comes soon after a burst of gang activity at home, opens Duncan up to criticism from Republicans and any residents who believe the county has done enough to help Latino immigrants.
"I think that there's still a very large population of people who have lived here in this county for over 30 years," Tom Reinheimer, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, said this week. "To go off and cater to one small, specific group and deal with a foreign head of state is getting beyond his role as county executive. He ought to be staying here and finding out what he can do to fix things in Montgomery County."
San Salvador's business and political elite greeted Duncan and his nine-member delegation enthusiastically as they arrived Wednesday and Thursday. They rode a bus escorted by police officers on motorcycles who made sure they didn't have to stop at red lights. Newspaper photographers and government officials snapped Duncan's picture at every gathering. Everyone laughed at his jokes, and Duncan laughed at everyone else's, even when they were told in Spanish, a language he doesn't speak.
His first meeting Thursday was with members of El Salvador's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who, over refried beans and scrambled eggs, discussed U.S. immigration policy and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Flanked by the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States and the chamber president, Duncan said he wants to encourage Salvadoran businesses to open in Montgomery. "When you talk globalization, just look at Montgomery County," he said.
Duncan then was whisked off to meet with legislative leaders from the country's ruling Arena party and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, as well as other parties.
Although the civil war is over, tensions remain between the right-wing Arena party and the left-wing FMLN. Many of the more than 105,000 Salvadorans in the Washington region are FMLN supporters, and local leaders had urged Duncan to seek out members of both parties.
More recently, El Salvador has found itself in waging another war, against gangs. Saca's tough stance, known as the "super mano dura," or super hard hand, has included deploying heavily armed soldiers to supplement the national police force and facilitating the prosecution of suspected gang members. Saca said last night that he also has created a prevention and rehabilitation program.
On Friday and Saturday, Duncan will travel to the eastern part of the country -- once home to many of Montgomery's Salvadorans -- to visit areas being considered for resort development and port expansion. The county is paying about $8,000 for Duncan and three of his aides to travel to El Salvador, a county spokeswoman said.
For the Salvadoran government, Duncan's trip offers a chance to encourage investment in Central America while connecting with a county that holds one of El Salvador's most valuable assets: immigrants who send back millions of dollars each year.
For Duncan, the visit provides not only trade talks and gang advice, but also a chance to showcase his leadership on a more prominent stage as he prepares to run for governor next year. "It demonstrates a level of leadership and vision," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), who traveled with Duncan. "This is just extraordinary. You don't see this kind of an effort in today's political climate."
Latino voters would play a limited role in picking the next governor, given that the community represents about 2 percent of the state's registered voters. The numbers would be more concentrated in a Democratic primary, especially in Montgomery and Prince George's, where Duncan needs much support to overtake his probable rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Since 2002, these voters have helped elect Hispanic members to the legislature and county councils.
"You're still at the early end of the Latino vote having the kind of influence it has in Southern California and other places," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based polling company.
In his decade as county executive, Duncan has taken steps to accommodate the influx of immigrants, recognizing identity cards issued by Mexico and Guatemala and opening a welcome center that offers English classes.
O'Malley has co-sponsored a Latino leadership conference and has two full-time liaisons in his office of Hispanic affairs.
Republicans also have reached out to the immigrant community, though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) drew criticism for calling multiculturalism "bunk" and, more recently, for eliminating $7 million in health care coverage for pregnant women and children who have been legal residents for less than five years.