U.S. offers funds to fight Central America gangs

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The United States pledged $4 million on Wednesday to help Central American governments draft a regional security strategy to fight violent youth street gangs and drug trafficking.

Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, made the cash pledge while in Guatemala to sign an agreement with the Central American Integration System (SICA) to improve intelligence sharing and policing.

“This is an integrated strategy, all of these threats are connected,” Shannon said after the signing. “The gangs traffic drugs and arms and the major drug cartels use the gangs to do their work.”

The U.S. drug enforcement agency says as much as 75 percent of Colombian cocaine passes through Central America on its way to the United States, with powerful cartels battling for control of Guatemala’s lawless jungles and porous border with Mexico.

Shannon promised $1 million to strengthen regional security coordination between the Central American countries and Mexico, which participated in the meeting as an observer.

Central American officials attending the meeting told local media a complete security plan could cost up to $800 million for increased law enforcement and more technical equipment and training.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are overrun with violent youth street gangs, known as ‘maras’ that trace their origins back to Salvadoran immigrants on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s.

Crime is on the rise in Guatemala, with close to 6,000 people killed in the country of 12 million last year, one of the highest rates in Latin America.

On Tuesday, the day Shannon arrived in the country, a gang member known as “The Worm” was found dismembered, his body parts and heart left in plastic bags scattered around a football field. Police say a rival gang killed him.

Human rights investigators say gang members are often targeted and killed by vigilante groups or police death squads, fed up by an inept justice system that fails to control crime rates and gang extortions.

Bodies of young gang members, known for their distinctive tattoos, are often found bound and tortured.

Three million dollars will be dispersed over three years by the U.S. Agency for International Development to fund rehabilitation programs for youths in gangs.

“We have to remember that this type of delinquency has profound social roots and our way of fighting it cannot only be through policing,” Shannon said during a news conference earlier in his visit.