- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

MEXICO CITY — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and officials from Central American countries are pledging to confront a problem that her officials acknowledge U.S. policies helped create: a rise in activity by powerful drug cartels in the region.

Representatives at the two-day meeting that opens Wednesday in Guatemala City are expected to discuss a coordinated security plan to stem the growing presence of cartels in Central America and ask for close to $1 billion to pay for it.

But U.S. officials said Monday that participants should not expect Mrs. Clinton to break out the checkbook.

“The secretary may announce how we’re repackaging some of our own assistance, but this is not a donors conference,” Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs told reporters in Washington.

“We’re taking substantial amounts of support for Central America and trying to convert it into a far more strategic strategy.”

Years of U.S.-backed crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have pushed drug traffickers into the Central American countries wedged between them, spreading violence in a region where corruption, poverty and underfunded police forces have allowed the problem to grow almost unchecked.

The harsh reality facing Guatemala was highlighted last month when 27 people on a ranch were massacred, most beheaded, in an attack blamed on Mexico’s brutal Zetas drug cartel, which has spread to Guatemala.

In a March visit to El Salvador, President Obama announced a security partnership intended to address both Central America’s growing problem and the wider problems of drugs, gangs and guns that spill south from North America.

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. It is also by far the world’s largest supplier of arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Mr. Obama’s announcement did not come with new money, just a pledge to review about $200 million already allocated.

Central America long has been a transit corridor for drugs moving from Colombia to the United States. As the United States has cracked down on security and Mexico’s war on drugs has grown bloodier, crime syndicates increasingly have made Central America their home.

They have found fertile ground there. Borders have minimal migration control, and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.

That is a major concern for Mexico, where, according to official figures, at least 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime. Mexican news media report the number is as high as 40,000.

Mr. Calderon is expected to be one of 10 presidents or prime ministers in attendance at the conference.

“Helping Central America confront organized crime is a matter of global responsibility,” Ruben Beltran, the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, told the Associated Press by email.

He praised the cooperation of the United States, Colombia, the European Union and other partners in the conference. He said the new coordination will be “concentrated fundamentally in strengthening institutions of security and justice.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that the billions spent fighting drug cartels through Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico have left a vacuum in Central America that the cartels have filled.

“The logic is those who are affected by those efforts have focused their effort, their attention and their resources in Central America,” said William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.

He said the United States will work with countries in the region but also push them to pay for security programs themselves.

Mr. Valenzuela acknowledged at a briefing ahead of the conference that many countries in the region do not collect enough taxes to invest in security.

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.

AP reporter Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.

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