The Obama administration pledged Wednesday to increase its investment in Central Americas security to nearly $300 million this year to thwart the expanding activities of drugs cartels threatening to destabilize the entire region.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the release of new funds at a meeting of 12 regional countries and donor nations. Some of the money was previously allotted or is being repackaged from other programs, but the total figure represents a more than 10 percent jump from last year's aid of $260 million, U.S. officials said.
"We know the statistics _ the murder rates surpassing civil war levels," Clinton said.
The gathering in Guatemala's capital aims to find a coordinated strategy to fight the growing threat posed by the cartels. Altogether donors pledged close to $1 billion.
Years of U.S.-backed anti-drug crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have pushed traffickers into Central American countries wedged in between. The problem has grown almost unchecked in a region beset by corruption, poverty and underfunded police forces.
Clinton said Central American governments needed to do their part by fighting corruption and ensuring effective institutions. They must "build police forces and courts that are well-funded and well-equipped, capable of protecting human rights and earning the trust of the communities they serve," she said.
The governments of the region are severely underfunded. Whereas the U.S. government collects revenues equal to more than 20 percent of America's total income, most in Central American pull in only about 10 percent, with higher taxes facing fierce resistance from entrenched elites and businesses.
El Salvador's private sector has come out against a new tax proposed last month by President Mauricio Funes to raise $380 million over three years to pay for security programs. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla is waiting on legislative approval for projects to raise an additional $100 million to fight organized crime.
Yet governments are not completely without fault. In Guatemala, many wealthy people chafe at the idea of higher taxes after their government moved tens of millions of dollars away from security into populist social programs ahead of a September election.
In the meantime, the harsh reality facing many of these countries is becoming increasingly apparent. In Guatemala, 27 people were massacred last month on a ranch, most of them beheaded. The attack was blamed on Mexico's brutal Zetas drug cartel, which has set up shop in the country.
Clinton urged cooperation from rich and poor.
"Businesses and the rich must pay their fair share of taxes and become full partners in a whole-of-society effort," she said. "True security cannot be funded on the backs of the poor."
Compounding the problem, senior American officials said, is that Central America's wealthy are directing money instead toward private security arrangements. While this may provide a degree of personal safety, it deprives the state of the ability to set up the necessary police forces, courts and programs to combat the cartels.
Central America has long been a transit corridor for drugs moving from Colombia to the United States. But as the U.S. has cracked down on security and Mexico's war on drugs has grown bloodier, crime syndicates have increasingly made Central America their home.
They have found fertile ground. Borders have minimal migration control, and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime. Drug units are believed to be increasing their presence to other illegal activities from prostitution to cross-border gas smuggling as they become more entrenched.
The situation is a major concern for neighbors as well. At least 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime in 2006.
Clinton said the U.S. money would go toward supporting specialized anti-drug police units, crime data and intelligence gathering, and programs designed to protect the rule of law. Other funds will help empower women and children and steer young people away from crime.
To promote greater investments, Clinton lauded a program the U.S. has launched in El Salvador. There, for every dollar the United States grants toward crime prevention, businesses will invest three.
"The same should be true across the region," she said.
Clinton traveled later Wednesday to a separate meeting in Jamaica, where she promised $77 million to help Caribbean nations fight drug traffickers, corruption and illegal weapons. The funding represents a more than 70 percent increase from last year.