SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Under the shadow of the Libyan war to the end, President Barack Obama sped to the finish of his Latin American journey on Tuesday, promising a better U.S. fight against the violent drug trade that plagues Central America and undermines the security of an entire region.
In tiny El Salvador, Obama again found his time diverted and his agenda eclipsed by the U.S.-led military campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He was scuttling a trip to Mayan ruins here Wednesday morning in favor of a national security meeting on Libya.
The president is returning to Washington on Wednesday a couple of hours earlier than scheduled.
Obama promised a new partnership across Central America to increase trade and economic growth, target drug trafficking and create opportunities so that people can find work in their home countries and "don't feel like they have to head north to provide for their families."
He also said anew he would push for a comprehensive reform of immigration laws in the United States, including a "pathway to get right by the law" for those who live in the country illegally. But that volatile issue is stalled in Congress and shows no signs of political life.
El Salvador 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 said Republicans who now exert greater control in Washington were more reluctant than in the past to engage in comprehensive reform, but added, "I am confident that ultimately we are going to get it done."
Obama's trip was designed to show an engagement in the Americas, create markets for U.S. goods and build up relations with democratic nations whose political support the United States needs in coping with security threats, climate woes and energy prices.
The security partnership Obama announced is intended to address not just Central America but the United States and broader hemisphere given the spillover effects of drugs, gangs and guns. The deal does not come with new money, but rather a pledge from the White House to review some $200 million already allocated for current conditions, with a commitment to continue support "as appropriate."
El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, seemed thrilled by Obama's attention to the region and its challenges.
"Organized crime and crime in general is not a problem only of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia or Mexico," he said. "It's a problem that we can only face as a region."
Obama began his trip to Latin America in Brazil on Saturday, the same day he authorized military strikes against Libya as part of an international effort to prevent a civilian massacre by Gadhafi against his people. He also visited Chile before coming to Central America.
Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy while en route from Chile to El Salvador, to discuss NATO's roll in the Libya offensive. Obama said during his news conference with Funes that he was confident the U.S. would transfer control of Libya operation to an international coalition in days.
Among the issues he and Funes addressed was the rising crime south of the U.S. border. El Salvador has seen murder rates rise amid an influx of drugs and displaced traffickers from crackdowns in Colombia and Mexico. Obama said a new partnership to combat narco-trafficking could focus on strengthening courts and civil society groups in order to keep young people from turning to drugs and crime.
Obama said he was confident that Funes would show "great leadership" in using the money properly.
Obama, his wife Michelle Obama and their two daughters arrived in the capital of San Salvador Tuesday afternoon under sunny skies.
After the meeting and appearance with Funes, Obama traveled alone to visit the tomb of slain Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero at San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral. Romero spoke out against repression by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army during El Salvador's 12-year civil war and was gunned down March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. Rights activists and others were welcoming Obama's decision to visit the tomb as a gesture of recognition of Romero's cause.
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.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn in San Salvador and Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City contributed to this report.