By Michael McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The United States military is ramping up anti-drug trafficking efforts in Guatemalan and Honduran waters to keep up with shifting smuggling routes, a top U.S. military official told Reuters on Wednesday.
General Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. military's Southern Command, said that the coasts along the two Central American countries are top transit spots for South American cocaine destined for the United States.
"Key arrival points in Central America are the northeast coast of Honduras and then the Pacific coast of Guatemala," Fraser said. "We changed our strategy to be more persistent ... to see if we could have a bigger impact on trafficking organizations."
U.S. Southern Command, based in Doral, Florida, and responsible for coordinating military operations in Latin American and the Caribbean, sent 171 Marines and four helicopters to Guatemala this month as part of Operation Martillo.
The operation is part of a strategy to boost seizures in Central American waters, where small, fast boats and submarines transport about 500 tons of cocaine to the United States annually.
The United States estimates that 90 percent of South American cocaine heading to the United States passes through Central America and attributes a rise in violent crime in the region to transnational drug smugglers.
Trafficking routes have shifted in recent years as governments crack down on smugglers, forcing security teams to adapt.
Fraser arrived in Guatemala Tuesday and held a meeting with Guatemalan President Otto Perez. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to visit Guatemalan military bases where U.S. Marines have been deployed.
Perez, a retired general who served during the country's brutal 36-year civil war, took office in January promising a crackdown on violent crime in the tiny Central American nation, plagued by bloody street gangs and powerful drug cartels.
Perez has dispatched special Guatemalan forces to the country's porous and sparsely populated northern border with Mexico and has promised to boost the army by 2,500 soldiers during his four-year term.
The country has also undertaken police reform to improve training and equipment, a move that Fraser said will boost the country's ability to combat transnational crime.
"The real focus is to get this problem to where local law enforcement can handle it within their capacities," Fraser said.
The U.S. pledged $107 million in aid to Central America in 2012 under the Central American Regional Security Initiative to boost crime fighting programs in the region's seven countries.
(Reporting by Michael McDonald; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Cynthia Osterman)