On May 27, a Honduran Internet cafe owner spotted alleged al Qaeda terrorist Adnan G. El Shukrijumah in Tegucigalpa. The cafe owner recognized him from a photograph published in a local newspaper the day after the FBI issued a worldwide alert for Shukrijumah and six others said to pose a "real and present danger" to the United States.

The cafe owner contacted local authorities, but what happened to "Jafar the Pilot," a nickname for the suspected terrorist compared by U.S. law enforcement officials to Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, remains a mystery.

The spokesman for the Honduran security ministry, Leonel Sauceda, said in an interview that Honduran officials initially were confident they could capture the suspect in Honduras. But after a month-long manhunt proved fruitless, only last week did they choose to alert neighboring countries -- a delay that has confounded regional law enforcement authorities.

The incident suggests that potential terrorists may be using the United States' Central American neighbors as havens. And, sadly, the lapse in sharing the information demonstrates that, despite initiatives to the contrary, anti-terrorism efforts at the regional level are uncoordinated and ineffective.

While Shukrijumah apparently has vanished, potential terrorists appear to have discovered what other criminal elements have exploited in Central America since the end of the Cold War: weak and often corrupt public institutions, understaffed and underpaid police forces, and general poverty. For criminals who smuggle drugs and people northward and arms and cash southward, few places can match the convenience of Central America.

In 1995 Central American leaders committed themselves to a new vision of regional security that promised to shift priorities and funding away from conventional forces armed for traditional conflicts. But it took a commitment from Washington, after Sept. 11, to turn such a pledge into something more than empty rhetoric.

As Daniel W. Fisk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, described it a year ago, there is an urgent need to transform old security institutions into "more agile, potent and well-trained professional entities" to better face today's threats.

That transition is advancing slowly, though. Two months ago, Nicaragua took the first concrete step toward a more "reasonable balance" of military forces in the region by destroying 333 of the 2,000-plus Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles left over from its civil war of the 1980s. It promises to destroy 300 more later this month. Last week Guatemala reduced its armed forces by nearly one-third, to levels comparable to those of its neighbors.

Honduras, for its part, still maintains F-5 fighter jets acquired from the United States in the 1980s. Such military equipment certainly seems ineffective in fighting an enemy that can sit calmly at an Internet cafe in the Honduran capital. Meanwhile, its Security Ministry, according to Sauceda, manages a budget of about $60 million, less than two-thirds the size of Honduras's military budget.

Washington has increased military assistance fourfold since 2001. The apparent contradiction of supporting a transition away from conventional forces but still providing funding for such forces is the direct result of a U.S. law that prevents most security assistance from going to police.

Many U.S. officials agree that police forces would be a better fit for fighting crime and providing security. That is not only because of the nature of the job but because of the legacy of abuse and mistrust that military forces have left among the people of Central America.

But it was similar abuses by police in the past that led to the current restrictions on them. Washington finds itself in a bind, recognizing that it must be a part of security reform in Central America but is forced to do so mostly through conventional military assistance. It is time to allow re-engagement with police forces.

While it is still unclear why Honduran authorities, supposedly working closely with U.S. officials, failed to notify regional authorities of Shukrijumah's presence in Central America, the lesson learned from his disappearance should be apparent. Central America, with Washington's help, must continue its security transformation -- and soon learn to trust that, in the 21st century, neighbors are partners in regional security and not the potential enemies they were in the past.

desdewash@washpost.com