WASHINGTON — With a Guatemalan leader looking on, President Bush on Monday urged Congress to approve a $550 million package of anti-drug trafficking assistance for Mexico and Central America.
The package, known as the Merida Initiative, would provides helicopters, training and other equipment to a region struggling to cope with a surge in drug-related violence. Congressional appropriators may cut parts of the program, which are to be included in an Iraq and Afghanistan spending bill, given budgetary constraints and concerns the aid is too focused on military equipment.
''We want to work in conjunction with strong leaders to make sure these drug traffickers don't get a stronghold,'' Bush said in the Oval office after meeting with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom. "And that's why it's very important for Congress to fund the Merida project.''
In his remarks, Colom, a moderate leftist, said his nation is doing ''everything necessary'' to fight drug trafficking. Guatemala is part of the transit corridor for Colombian-produced cocaine headed to the United States.
Colom's was he first to the United States as head of state. He will also meet with Congressional leaders.
Besides drug trafficking, the two leaders discussed trade, economic reforms and immigration issues. Colom asked Bush to consider granting Guatemalan migrants a temporary reprieve from deportations known as TPS. The Guatemalan economy is dependent on remittances sent by migrants in the United States.
''I assured him that I will consider his request,'' Bush said, ''and I assured him that I believe comprehensive immigration reform is in our nations' best interests.''
Only $50 million of the first installment of the three-year $1.4 billion Merida Initiative is earmarked for Central America.
This has triggered concerns among Central American leaders that drug trafficking organizations will shift southwards as Mexican security forces crack down.
Colom last November beat out a former military officer in a tight race to become Guatemala's first leftist leader in more than half a century. The industrial engineer took office in January, vowing to fight poverty. He's also pressing for the release of military documents that could shed light on the deaths of 200,000 during 1960-1996 civil war, most of them killed by security forces.
He's also taken a tough line against drug traffickers, telling a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he was embarked on a ''frontal assault'' against the drug trade and cooperating with Mexico and the United States more.
Bush was all praise for Colom. ''We are friends,'' Bush said. "We treat each other with respect.''