Reporting from Bridgetown, Barbados — Leaders of countries in the eastern Caribbean told Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday that the international anti-drug crackdown in Mexico has forced traffickers into the waters around their islands, adding to the region's crime and security woes.
To stem the increase, Caribbean nations are seeking expanded security assistance from the United States, particularly for combating drug trafficking, and leaders said they would like to see a greater American focus on the region.
A U.S. security aid program known as the Merida Initiative has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico and Central American countries to help curtail money laundering, disrupt the movement of drugs and improve security.
Caribbean leaders had asked to join the three-year program, which expires this year. The Obama administration is considering ways to fund the initiative next year, but it also wants to develop new approaches to improve coordination in the region.
"Narco-trafficking is a problem for the hemisphere as a whole," Gates said. "Whenever you put pressure on, the traffickers will go where there is less resistance and where there is less capability."
An increase in smuggling from Venezuela has also added to the problem in the eastern Caribbean. Officials said drug cartels have developed better technologies, such as new versions of small boats that can quickly move narcotics.
The region is patrolled by various navies, including those from the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands. U.S. officials hope that improved integration of those efforts will better combat trafficking.
In the meeting between Gates and leaders of Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and three other island countries, the Caribbean officials complained to Gates that the U.S. had withdrawn from the region over the last decade.
"My visit, I hope, will indicate to people that the United States is reengaging in this region and will work . . . to address these problems," Gates said.
He pointed to a $45-million Caribbean security initiative unveiled last year by President Obama, with the Pentagon requesting $75 million for that next year. About a third of the funding is intended for new communications equipment and interdiction craft.