In El Salvador, Obama pledges drug-fighting assistance

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2011 

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Reflecting on America's role in another war-torn country, El Salvador, President Barack Obama paid homage Tuesday evening at the tomb of a Catholic archbishop gunned down by U.S.-linked death squads more than three decades ago.

Obama, who's facing questions from anxious lawmakers about U.S. military intervention in Libya, scrapped a visit to Mayan ruins on the schedule for Wednesday morning, and a spokesman said he would depart for Washington at 11 a.m., a few hours earlier than scheduled.

On the last leg of a trip that also took him to Brazil and Chile, Obama pledged $200 million to Central America to battle a new menace: drug cartels.

He hailed President Mauricio Funes, the first leftist leader in El Salvador's modern history, for his moderate policies and efforts to "overcome old divisions" still visible in this tiny nation.

Narcotics, public security and immigration were the main topics as Obama and Funes met in the ornate presidential palace, surrounded by tropical gardens.

But so was the weight of history, and Cold War forces that turned this nation into a proxy battleground in which 75,000 people died during the 1980-1992 civil war.

Moments before heading with Obama to a crypt beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral to honor slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Funes thanked him for paying tribute to a prelate he called "the spiritual guide of this nation . . . and the universal validity of his message."

Helicopters flew over the cathedral as Obama and Funes arrived. Obama, looking somber and occasionally shaking his head, listened as Funes spoke to him before a bronze reclined image of the slain archbishop. Obama lit a votive candle.

Gunmen assassinated Romero while he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, drawing an international outcry over massive human rights abuses in El Salvador. Romero, who'd denounced death squads from the pulpit, became a martyr to leftists and the poor around Latin America.

The death squad was later proved to be linked to the U.S.-trained and financed army battling a Cuba-backed Marxist insurgency.

At a funeral Mass six days later, a bomb exploded and shots rang out, apparently from army gunmen on rooftops, sparking scenes of panic, terror and chaos among the throng of 250,000 faithful in attendance.

The Vatican has taken up a cause for beatification and canonization into sainthood for Romero.

Shortly after the arrival of Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on a day of brilliant blue skies, Funes noted that his country, like Chile and Brazil, had moved in recent decades "in a very orderly and peaceful manner" toward democracy.

El Salvador's vulnerability to drug gangsters was underscored by a full-page newspaper ad by the Nationalist Republican Alliance, the right-wing opposition party that governed the nation for the past four presidential terms.

It appealed for U.S. help "to avoid El Salvador from becoming the territory of drug traffickers as has sadly happened in nearby countries."

As much as 80 percent of the cocaine from the Andean region passes through Central America, and drug gangs from Colombia and Mexico have moved heavily into the region, particularly neighboring Honduras and Guatemala.

Obama voiced determination to "confront the narco-traffickers and gangs that have caused so much violence in all of our countries, and especially here in Central America."

He said the $200 million anti-crime package would "strengthen courts, civil society groups and institutions that uphold the rule of law" and address "the social and economic forces that drive young people towards criminality."

The White House said it would help El Salvador in a pilot program, Partnership for Growth, to bring private investment, increase trade and provide jobs for Salvadorans to keep them in their homeland.

Some 2 million Salvadorans — or one out of four — live in the U.S., some of them illegally, and send home an average of $3.5 billion a year. Obama said Salvadoran migrants make "extraordinary contributions to our country, even as they support their families and communities here in El Salvador."

Obama tied immigration to issues of rising crime and job opportunities.

He said Funes told him that, "I don't want a young man in El Salvador or a young woman in El Salvador to feel that the only two paths to moving up the income ladder is either to travel north or to join a criminal enterprise."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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