Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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 following stops in Brazil and Chile. The Obamas were greeted by two children in traditional dress who presented the family with candy, and San Salvador's mayor, who gave Obama a key to the city.

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 Nicholas Sarkozy while en route to El Salvador to discuss NATO's roll in the Libya offensive.

Obama was to hold meetings Tuesday afternoon with El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes, followed by a joint news conference. Among the issues on his agenda 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 federal 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.

Before leaving Chile, Obama met briefly again with President Sebastian Pinera to thank him for Chile's hospitality, the White House said.

In a broad-ranging speech 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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