By Ioan Grillo and David Alire Garcia
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano defended Washington's drug war strategy on Monday despite calls by some Latin American leaders to consider decriminalizing narcotics.
Napolitano, who is touring Mexico and Central America to strengthen security cooperation, said the United States would continue assisting efforts by Latin Americans to go after producers and traffickers in the region despite relentless drug-related violence.
"I would not agree with the premise that the drug war is a failure," Napolitano said. "It is a continuing effort to keep our peoples from becoming addicted to dangerous drugs."
Mexican President Felipe Calderon has focused on targeting kingpins, capturing or killing many major drug cartel figures. But the country is still hunting Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001.
Napolitano said U.S. and Mexican agents would persevere in the search for Guzman.
"It took us 10 years to find (al Qaeda chief) Osama bin Laden and we found him, and you know what happened there," Napolitano said.
Napolitano's comments came before a visit to Guatemala where recently elected President Otto Perez has called for a regional debate on drug policy, including questions about removing criminal penalties for drug consumption and production.
"What we are putting on the table ... although we know some are against it, is decriminalization," Perez told reporters earlier this month.
"We have to study the issue of production, the issue of transport and also consumption," he said at a separate event.
Perez, a retired army general, won election last year promising a hard line on crime.
But shortly after taking office, he began talking about alternative approaches to fighting the drug war.
Perez said he would raise the decriminalization issue at a regional summit of Latin American leaders in April in Colombia.
El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, also said he was open to hearing new approaches to the drug fight, which has helped make Central America one of world's most murderous regions.
"We have to have open ears and open minds," Funes said after a meeting with Perez in Guatemala earlier in February. "I think decriminalization could deliver a serious hit to the finances of organized crime groups. ... But we also need to consider how (it) could stimulate consumption among our youth."
Drug violence has surged in Mexico and Central America as cartels fight over tens of billions dollars annually from selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to U.S. users.
Mexico has experienced more than 47,000 drug-related killings in the past five years, while Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world.
Several former Latin American presidents, including Mexico's Vicente Fox, have also called for a debate on the legalization of drugs.
Napolitano signed agreements with Mexico on Monday designed to help secure communications between both nations' customs agencies and prevent organized crime from laundering money via legitimate trade flows between Mexico and the United States.
(Additional reporting by Mike McDonald in Guatemala City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Peter Cooney)