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Obama, Central American presidents face a difficult agenda

May 03, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson and Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama talks with his Costa Rican counterpart, Laura Chinchilla, during his visit to San Jose, Costa Rica.
President Obama talks with his Costa Rican counterpart, Laura Chinchilla,… (Alejandro Bolivar / Pool…)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Central American presidents will likely have a long list of gripes for their U.S. counterpart as they head into meetings with Barack Obama on Friday night.

President Obama arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Friday afternoon, following a stay of barely 24 hours in Mexico, with plans to talk about trade, energy and the inevitable issue of the drug war.

Obama was greeted warmly by residents of Costa Rica's capital. On a humid afternoon, people lined the streets as his motorcade wound its way through the roads, waving American and Costa Ricans flags. A large banner hung outside the foreign ministry read: “Welcome, President Barack Obama. We, Costa Ricans, are delighted to have you here!” Obama posed with smiling children before entering the building for a meeting with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.

Costa Rica is the most peaceful country in Central America, but no part of the isthmus is immune to the drug-trafficking, gang violence and political turmoil that scar the region. Many in Central America hold the U.S. at least partly responsible for the problems, and the instability in turn is responsible for sending a steady wave of immigrants north toward the United States.

After meeting with Chinchilla, Obama was to give a news conference and later join the presidents of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic, bringing him face-to-face with erstwhile leftists like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and iron-fisted former generals like Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina.

In recent years, after peace agreements ended its civil wars, Central America began to register some of the world’s highest murder rates largely because of Mexican drug traffickers who spread south from Mexico, expanding their operations throughout the region. The violence was aggravated by brutal street gangs, many of their members deportees from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

Several countries were expected to use the Obama meeting to ask for more money for “citizen security” programs, and Obama was expected to urge greater cooperation and coordination, said Geoff Thale, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. WOLA estimated that U.S. governments have spent or allocated more than $750 million for “citizen security” in Central America in the last decade.

But greater cooperation — between the U.S. and Central America and among the Central American nations — is complicated. Many countries have weak democracies, corrupt or inept institutions and security forces tainted by poor human rights records. There is little trust to go around.

“There’s really much more that needs to take place dynamically within the region, but there are … some countries where it’s just really hard to find institutional partners,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  “If the idea is to integrate … and get greater cooperation, but you don’t have a viable national partner, I mean, you know, what can you do?”

Honduras is especially crippled. Its police chief has been implicated in illegal killings and kidnappings of alleged criminals. Many of the country’s senior officials supported a military coup that ousted the elected president in 2009. Political violence since then has claimed the lives of scores of activists, peasant leaders, journalists and citizens.

“We are going to tell [Obama] that we need the decisive support of the U.S. government to attack our common enemy: drug trafficking,” Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said in a news conference in his country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. “The countries of the region supply the dead in a war we did not start.”

Lobo, Perez and El Salvador's President, Mauricio Funes, said they would seek Obama’s promise to better protect migrants from their countries who enter the U.S. illegally and often fall prey to vicious drug and extortion gangs.

Their three countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — make up the so-called Golden Triangle, considered the most dangerous part of Central America, the poorest and also where the United States has focused military and police assistance. By comparison, the southern half of Central America enjoys relative prosperity.

In an apparent attempt to tamp down expectations, Costa Rican Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said major new commitments were not likely to come from the Obama administration.

“This is a great opportunity for us to work together on the projects already in development,” Zamora told reporters in San Jose. “We are grateful for international assistance, but we understand that we are first and foremost responsible for our own security.”

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