SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged $200 million on Tuesday to combat drug trafficking and street gangs in Central America on the final leg of a regional tour to bolster U.S. ties with southern neighbors who have often felt neglected by Washington.
Obama unveiled the new aid program as aides announced he would cut short his El Salvador visit slightly on Wednesday and head back to Washington, where the political debate over the U.S. military role in air assaults against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was gathering momentum.
Shifting to tiny, impoverished El Salvador after visiting economically thriving Brazil and Chile, Obama arrived with his attention split as he faced questions and criticism at home and abroad over U.S. goals in the U.N.-approved attacks in Libya.
The final leg of Obama’s Latin American tour marked a change in focus from issues of trade and investment that dominated his first stops aimed largely at reasserting U.S. interests in a region where China is posing growing competition.
Talks with President Mauricio Funes, a moderate leftist the White House sees as an emerging partner, dealt with boosting cooperation on drug enforcement and searching for common ground on volatile immigration matters. Both issues resonate loudly with Washington’s neighbors and among U.S. voters.
At a joint news conference, Obama offered fresh assistance for the anti-drug fight by governments in Central America, which has suffered a spillover of drug violence from Mexico, home to powerful narcotics cartels.
“We are launching a new effort against gangs in Central America to support efforts here in the region ... including the social and economic forces that drive young people toward criminality,” Obama said. He said it would help train security forces, strengthen courts and tackle underlying poverty.
Funes welcomed the new U.S. initiative and also made a point of praising Obama for acknowledging the need for greater U.S. efforts to curb U.S. demand for illegal drugs, which countries in the region see as the root of the problem.
U.S. drug consumption and gun-running are issues that have been a particular source of tension with Mexico.
The El Salvador visit will wrap up a five-day mission to reengage with Latin America and forge what Obama has called a “new era of partnership” with a region where many sensed that they had slipped down the U.S. list of priorities.
Obama’s trip is seen to have helped reinforce hemispheric ties, but the Libya attacks do not go down well with most of Latin America and he has delivered no major breakthroughs on long-promised trade pacts or key trade disputes.
Obama’s travels were dogged by concern over the Western military campaign over Libya. He is struggling to balance his handling of world crises with his domestic priorities of job creation and economic recovery, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
The White House said a visit planned for Wednesday to San Salvador’s cathedral to pay homage at the tomb of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero was shifted to Tuesday, and a tour of Mayan ruins set for outside the city on Wednesday was scrapped to allow Obama to hold a teleconference with Libya advisers in the morning and then fly out about two hours early.
Editing by John Whitesides, Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh