SAN SALVADOR – President Barack Obama pledged $200 million on Tuesday to Central America's anti-drug fight 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 aid plan 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 Libya campaign.
The final visit of Obama's Latin American tour marked a change in emphasis from issues of trade and investment that dominated his first stops, which were aimed at reasserting U.S. interests in countries where China poses growing competition.
Talks with President Mauricio Funes, a moderate leftist the White House sees as an emerging partner, focused on reassuring him of 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 $200 million fresh funding to governments combating drug traffickers and street gangs in Central America, which has suffered a spillover of drug violence from Mexico's 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 initiative and praised 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 have been a particular source of tension with Mexico.
The El Salvador visit will wrap up a five-day mission to re-engage with a region where Washington's approach has ranged from heavy-handed use of power for much of the 20th century to one of neglect in recent years.
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. The trip was also judged to have done little to counter China's inroads.
Obama's travels were dogged by concern over the Western air campaign over Libya. He is struggling to balance handling world crises with his domestic priorities of jobs and economic recovery, considered crucial to his 2012 re-election chances.
He mostly stuck to his travel plans even as aides scrambled to keep him up to speed on Libyan developments and unrest in the Arab world.
Obama's visit to San Salvador's cathedral to pay homage at the tomb of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero was shifted from Wednesday to Tuesday, and the White House said a tour of Mayan ruins set for Wednesday was scrapped to let him hold a call with Libya advisers in the morning and then fly out about 2 1/2hours early.
In San Salvador, Obama repeated his commitment to reform the U.S. immigration system but did not say when he would seek legislation. There is disappointment in the region over his failure to act on immigration and he is given little chance of digging into the hot-button issue ahead of the 2012 election.
Despite that, Obama's visit carried political symbolism. Funes won the presidency in 2009 as head of a coalition led by a former leftist guerrilla movement that was opposed by the United States during El Salvador's long civil war. He is the country's first left-of-center president since the conflict.