In Central America, Obama's worries closer to home

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 2:23 p.m. MDT

An El Salvador army soldier stands guard on a street near the site where U.S. President Barack Obama will be staying in San Salvador, El Salvador Monday March 21, 2011. Obama will end his Latin America tour with a two day visit to El Salvador.

Dario Lopez-Mills, Photo

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — President Barack Obama opened the final leg of his Latin American tour Tuesday in El Salvador, a critical partner on immigration and narcotics wars, issues of increasing concern to the United States.

Obama, along with wife Michelle Obama and their two daughters, arrived in the capital San Salvador Tuesday afternoon under a blistering sun following stops in Brazil and Chile. After being greeted at the airport by children in traditional dress bearing candy, the president and first lady were welcomed at the national palace by El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes and his wife Vanda Pignato. The two couples stood at attention in front of the flags of both their countries as the national anthems of El Salvador and the United States were played. Obama and Funes then headed into a private meeting at the palace, to be followed by a joint news conference.

Much of Obama's five-day tour of Latin America has been overshadowed by events in Libya, where the U.S. and international partners are launching military strikes to protect civilians from attacks by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The White House said Obama was briefed on developments there by his national security team Tuesday during a conference call from Air Force One. He also spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy while en route to El Salvador, to discuss NATO's roll in the Libya offensive.

The White House shuffled Obama's schedule in El Salvador, moving up a visit to the tomb of slain Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, originally scheduled for Wednesday, to Tuesday evening. The move raised the prospect that Obama might return to Washington ahead of schedule.

Among the issues on Obama's agenda in El Salvador —the only Central American country on his Latin America trip — is the rising crime south of the U.S. border, from which El Salvador is hardly immune. It has seen murder rates rise amid an influx of drugs and displaced traffickers from crackdowns in Colombia and Mexico.

El Salvador also has one of Central America's highest rates of emigration, especially to the United States. About 2.8 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States sent home $3.5 billion last year, so laws that crack down on immigrants can significantly affect the Salvadoran economy.

Obama can offer little to fix El Salvador's devastating crime and fragile economy. Fiscal pressures have limited the amount of money the U.S. government can provide as part of its drug-fighting efforts, and congressional politics have made it difficult to restart talks about overhauling the nation's immigration laws.

In a broad-ranging speech in Chile on Monday that spelled out his policy in Latin America, Obama called on the region's rising economies to take more responsibility and play a larger role both in the region and around the globe.

He also described U.S. initiatives in Latin America to help curb the proliferation of drugs. Congress approved $1.8 billion for the so-called Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico. After complaints that Central America was shortchanged, Congress created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million so far. Central American leaders say that has not been enough.

Obama also prodded the region to fight poverty, lauding countries that have pushed more of their population into the middle class.

"We'll never break the grip of the cartels and the gangs unless we also address the social and economic forces that fuel criminality," he said Monday.

Funes, who despite being elected with support from former Marxist guerillas has charted a moderate course in El Salvador, agrees with Obama that all countries in the region need to contribute to a solution.

Some Central American leaders have expressed annoyance that Obama chose to meet with Funes instead of a broader group of Central American leaders. But Latin America policy experts said it was important for Obama to endorse Funes' pragmatic approach despite the leftist inclinations of his party.

Funes said he would raise the issue of security with Obama in regional terms. "Security cannot be seen as exclusively an issue in El Salvador, or Guatemala or Nicaragua," he said recently. "Central American countries all suffer from the same problem."

Obama conceded Monday that the United States also bears a burden when it comes to gun trafficking.

"Every gun or gunrunner that we take off the streets is one less threat to the families and communities of the Americas," he said.

But Obama, in calling for a new discussion on guns, recently declined to endorse the very gun control measures he had supported in the past.

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