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Security tops agenda for El Salvador's Funes meeting with Obama
The Tico Times / February 11, 2011

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — Promoting regional security, boosting trade and resolving the long-standing debate over immigration will be the main themes of President Obama’s visit to El Salvador next month — his first ever to Central America.

Hugo Martínez, the country’s foreign minister, discussed the upcoming trip during a press conference last Friday at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington. He said the presidential visit — which also includes Brazil and Chile — will take place in late March, though specific dates have not yet been announced.

“We are developing a really intense agenda for President Obama’s visit to El Salvador,” Martínez told journalists. “Regional security will be a main topic on the agenda, following up on the conversations the Obama administration has been having with President [Mauricio] Funes since he came to Washington in March 2010.”

Planning for the visit involves a number of high-level meetings between El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department, as well as with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Security Council.

“I remember very well last September, when President Obama, in his speech to the United Nations, talked about countries helping themselves, and El Salvador was one of the first countries he singled out for praise,” he said. “We understand that the president’s visit to our country has a lot to do with democracy and political stability in El Salvador, and efforts by President Funes towards national unity. Various administration officials have praised the example set by El Salvador.”

The trip is not without its controversies. Héctor Timerman, the foreign minister of Argentina, criticized Obama for bypassing his country while choosing to visit El Salvador, home to the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). Last week, an Argentine newspaper reported that agents of the Buenos Aires metropolitan police had traveled to El Salvador to take anti-terrorism courses at ILEA, which Timerman linked to the controversial School of the Americas, where military dictatorships including those of Argentina, Chile and other countries trained their forces in the 1970s and 1980s.

Timerman’s comments did not come up during the Washington press conference, at which Martínez noted that his country will be hosting the Organization of American States’ annual General Assembly in June. The theme of that meeting is citizen security in the Americas.

“Criminals don’t respect frontiers, which is why this has to be a regional effort,” he said. “As part of our fight against crime, we are making investments that will permit us to offer our young people an alternative. The lure of easy money seduces our youth, and we need to give them alternatives.”

He added that, along with the United States and other Central American countries, “we are organizing an international conference directly after the OAS General Assembly in San Salvador to focus on regional security — themes like finance, technology and cooperation in aviation and maritime to intercept drug traffickers. These are not things we resolve from one day to the next. It’s a process, and in this process, all of us have to be pro-active.”

Martínez said Funes will also talk to Obama about finding a permanent solution for the estimated 217,000 Salvadorans living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), while emphasizing the need for comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the concerns of those facing possible deportation back to their countries of origin.

“We’re not just talking about a dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security, but also agreements with state and local authorities. The groundwork for this was laid out during our last meeting with Janet Napolitano [secretary of homeland security],” he said.

“We are suggesting that if, for example, you must deport someone with children, that person should be given the opportunity to leave the country in an orderly way, rather than being removed or taken from his workplace immediately,” he said.

“There must be alternative mechanisms for locating these people, especially when there are children, pregnant women or elderly adults in their lives. We are also looking to the administration to differentiate between people who have criminal records and those who are being deported simply for not having the proper documents.”

In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, according to Napolitano, ICE removed a record 779,000 illegal immigrants from the United States, of which 195,000 were convicted criminals.

“We understand that this is a very complicated issue domestically in the United States,” said Martínez. “El Salvador is seeking ways that bring development to rural communities as a way to stop immigration, and to help Salvadorans already living in the United States. My message is that we have to work together, shoulder to shoulder, for the good of all Salvadorans everywhere.”

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