US President Barack Obama vowed on Friday to work with Central America to improve the drug fight as he met with regional leaders, conceding that US addiction was partly fueling violence roiling their nations.
Arriving in Costa Rica after visiting Mexico, Obama sought to turn the spotlight on trade ties — yet the drug war was at the center of his talks with the seven leaders of Central America, plus the Dominican Republic.
Before heading into the summit in San Jose’s National Theater, Obama said it was important to ensure that US ties with the region are “not solely defined by this problem, because when it is, we’re missing all the opportunities that exist out there.”
Obama had struck similar themes during his 24-hour trip in Mexico, highlighting the huge US-Mexican trade ties, vowing to push for immigration reform dear to Latinos and maintain the cooperation against drug cartels.
With the cartels wreaking havoc in their nations and turning the region into a hub for US-bound cocaine, Central American leaders wanted to discuss ways to improve the battle against narco-trafficking.
“The United States recognizes that we’ve got responsibilities, that much of the violence in the region is fueled by demand for illegal drugs, including in the United States,” Obama said, adding that US demand was declining, but that more progress was needed.
The US has provided US$500 million in security aid to Central America since 2008, but positive effects are hard to see: The murder rate in the region is currently at a staggering 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, five times the world average.
The US military has sent ships to the Pacific and Caribbean to intercept drugs, deployed 200 marines in Guatemala and shared radar intelligence with Honduras. However, top US generals warned that budget cuts could hamper the mission.
However, Obama said he was “not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking” and that part of the solution was through effective law enforcement and coordination.
The US leader said human and economic development must also be part of the strategy to combat drugs and gangs.
“We can’t just have a law-enforcement-only approach,” Obama told his Central American counterparts, adding that building up judicial systems and police forces were important, too.
“We also have to have a prevention approach. We have to have an education approach. We have to think creatively because obviously some of the things that we’re doing have worked, but some things haven’t worked,” he said.