MEXICO CITY — President Barack Obama, faced with skyrocketing violence and evidence of growing drug cartel power in Central America, for the first time has named three of the region's countries to the U.S. government's list of major drug-trafficking nations.
The inclusion of Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua on the "Majors List" was front-page news throughout the region, but there was little expectation that the designation would mean the U.S. will make new money and other resources available.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega said the U.S. determination could be a wake-up call for U.S. legislators that narcotics "are seriously contaminating" Central America.
"This contamination, this epidemic, is across the region, and that's why it is important that we have more resources," Ortega said, according to the La Prensa newspaper in Managua. "It would be an investment, we say, by the United States and I wish members of Congress would pay attention to this aspect."
Costa Rican officials admitted that their country is overwhelmed by a sudden surge of criminal groups tied to drug smuggling.
"Our resources alone are insufficient based on the magnitude of the situation we are facing," said Costa Rica's counternarcotics point man, Public Security Vice Minister Mauricio Boraschi.
The impact of drug trafficking throughout Central America is becoming ever more visible. Panama, which shares a border with Colombia, and Guatemala, which shares a border with Mexico, were placed on the list more than a decade ago. Of Central America's seven countries, only El Salvador and Belize still aren't considered major narcotics transshipment nations.
In his statement Thursday, Obama blamed crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia in part for Central America's growing problems.
"As Mexico and Colombia continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, the countries of Central America are increasingly targeted for trafficking of cocaine and other drugs primarily destined for the United States," Obama said.
Obama called for "enhanced and effective counternarcotics measures" to stop drug shipments both through Central America and along its "long Atlantic and Pacific coastlines."
Costa Rica, which sometimes is described as the Switzerland of Central America because it lacks an army, was shaken by the designation. U.S. Ambassador Anne Andrew quickly offered reassurances.
"I want to emphasize that Costa Rica's inclusion on the Majors List is not a failing grade or criticism," she told a news conference. "It is a description of the seriousness of the situation."
Some nine tons of cocaine have been seized in Costa Rica so far this year. Andrew said that "a very large majority" of the narcotics seizures "have had a direct connection to the Sinaloan cartel (of Mexico)."
She cautioned that making the Majors List wouldn't mean that there would "automatically be new monies flowing to any of the countries that are included."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a speech on Sept. 8 at the Council on Foreign Relations that Central America is unable to confront drug trafficking cartels with the same intensity as Mexico, where the army and federal police are in a bloody fight with cartel gunmen.
"But the small countries in Central America do not have that capacity, and the newly inaugurated president of Costa Rica, President (Laura) Chinchilla, said, 'We need help and we need a much more vigorous U.S. presence,'" Clinton said.
In a sign of Costa Rican concern over the growing influence of drug gangs, legislators in early July authorized as many as 46 U.S. warships with as many as 7,000 Marines to operate in its territorial waters through the end of the year as part of anti-narcotics operations.
Only one U.S. vessel has called, however. In late August, the 800-foot amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima docked at the Costa Rican port of Limon for a 10-day visit. The ship's aircraft are armed with weapons able to halt submarines increasingly used by drug traffickers to ship cocaine northward.
No other port calls by U.S. vessels are currently scheduled in Costa Rica.
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