WASHINGTON — Central American nations, fearful that a massive new counter-drug aid package for Mexico will push drug traffickers into their region, are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States in law enforcement assistance, according to diplomats and U.S. government officials.
The Bush administration has proposed just $50 million in counter-drug assistance for Central America as part of a $550 million aid program for Mexico known as the Merida Initiative.
Central American countries argue, however, that they need much more help and that traffickers may move into their countries as Mexico clamps down. Already, the region is reeling from some of the worst-ever drug violence.
''We see the $50 million as a positive initial first step,'' said Rene Leon, El Salvador's ambassador to Washington. ''But clearly they are insufficient given the (security) needs of the region.''
The Bush administration and many lawmakers are sympathetic to the Central American plight, though many consider the countries too small and poor to absorb vast quantities of sophisticated U.S. law enforcement equipment. One U.S. official noted that the economy of Nicaragua is the size of Lebanon, Pa.
Between 2000 and 2006, Central America received just $140 million in U.S. counter-drug aid — a fraction of the more than $4 billion provided to Colombia over the same period under the program known as Plan Colombia.
Negotiations for more U.S. aid to Central America are in an early stage, but some diplomats from the region are suggesting at least $500 million.
Honduran Ambassador Roberto Flores said the Bush administration is expected to dispatch missions to the region in the coming months to determine security needs. He said the negotiations began last year but are only now picking up as Congress prepares to debate the Merida Initiative and Central American countries commit to better intra-regional security coordination.
Flores said the countries are targeting organized crime, arms trafficking and gang violence. ''In these three areas, Central America, for its geopolitical position, shares interests with Mexico and the United States,'' he said.
Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Thomas Shannon traveled to a regional security summit in Guatemala in July. Soon afterward, he said the administration would consider more money in future budget requests.
Under the Merida Initiative, the Bush administration is proposing a three-year $1.4 billion program, to provide helicopters and other equipment plus training, mainly for Mexico. The initial $550 million is to be included in an Iraq and Afghanistan supplemental funding bill that Congress is expected to debate in February or March.
News media attention on violence among drug traffickers has focused on Mexico as Mexican President Felipe Calderon has called in federal troops to curb gangs that have turned portions of the country into killing zones.
But drug-fueled violence also is pervasive in Central America, which suffers from a combustible mix of poverty, gangs and vast rural areas with little police presence.
The Miami-based U.S. Southern Command estimates gang membership in Central America at 70,000, most of it in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Homicide rates in Guatemala and El Salvador are among the highest worldwide, according to U.N. data.
Cocaine originates in Colombia and is transported to Honduras, Belize and Guatemala, where it's then shipped to Mexico and the United States.
''Central American officials feel that they will not be able to confront threats effectively without more assistance,'' according to a Dec. 21 report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by minority staff member Carl Meacham, who was contacted by Central American officials in Washington and during a recent trip to Mexico. ''They fear that gang members and drug traffickers will flee Mexico for Central America, where it will be easier to operate.''
Salvadoran President Antonio Saca asked President Bush for more U.S. aid when the two met at the White House in late November, according to Leon. Saca, a close U.S. ally, told Bush that the Central Americans and Mexico had agreed to a new security framework to better coordinate their fight against traffickers.
Central America's biggest need, experts say, is mobility so that police can quickly intercept drug shipments in remote areas.
Last fall, the State Department agreed to supply Guatemala with four Huey II helicopters originally intended for Bolivia, according to a congressional notification signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The document was made public this week by Adam Isacson, a drug specialist with the Center for International Policy.
The State Department also is redirecting $16 million in aid to Central America. The package includes wiretapping and other training and equipment for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
''With few exceptions (notably Costa Rica and Panama), the countries in Central America are ill-equipped to handle the threat of drug trafficking,'' the document says. ''Weak economies and even weaker institutions can exacerbate the challenges.''
Gangs and their drug trafficking activities have reached ''critical proportions'' in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, it added. Prisons are ''overwhelmed,'' and the Honduran police are ''poorly trained and corrupt'' while Guatemalan security forces lack the ability to intercept cell phone conversations.