MEXICO CITY - A proposal by Guatemalan President Oscar Berger to establish a Central American rapid-reaction force to combat drug traffickers and gangs is gaining strength, although opponents say it could become a tool of U.S. interests and threaten the region's sovereignty.
Several countries in the region are proceeding with plans for such a force, which would include at least 500 soldiers, sailors and pilots.
The force would be used to stop drug shipments in the air, on land and at sea while fighting the growing influence of gangs and organized crime in urban centers and in remote drug-trafficking sites.
Opponents say the force could end up serving U.S. interests. Moreover, the idea runs counter to the demilitarizing trend that, with U.S. backing, has continued since the region's civil wars ended in the 1990s.
Central America is still recovering from those conflicts, which left tens of thousands dead or homeless and the region's economies in tatters.
Over the past decade, criminal activity in the region has increased. At least two-thirds of Colombian cocaine destined for the United States passes through Central America on the way north, U.S. drug enforcement agents have said.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are combating street gangs - including the notorious Mara Salvatrucha - with a total of about 50,000 members whose activities often are transnational, involving trafficking in drugs and people. Many are ex-convicts who have been deported from the United States.
Berger and Honduran President Ricardo Maduro have said that their nations' armed forces, greatly reduced after the end of the armed conflicts, are not able to combat organized crime on their own and that a regional approach might be the only answer.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann said in a telephone interview last week that the force can become a reality only if the United States agrees to provide training, equipment and intelligence.
U.S. State Department officials declined to comment last week. The United States has taken no official stance on forming a military force to confront security threats in Central America.
At a June meeting of the region's presidents in Honduras, Berger floated the idea of such a force as a way to form a common front against rising crime. A motion supporting the idea was approved by Berger and the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Col. Jose Ernesto Lopez, a spokesman for the Salvadoran armed forces, said the key for such a force would be "the mechanisms for expeditious and integrated communication between Central American nations, something that has taken on much impetus since the meeting of presidents in Honduras."
Opponents say they fear that the force would serve a U.S. agenda of fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration because it would depend largely on U.S. intelligence.
"The problem is that it would be a repressive, not a preventive force," said Grisel Grapo of the Center of Guatemalan Studies in Guatemala City. "The other is that Central American countries don't have their own agenda that establishes what the threats are to their national security. If they did, there would be a better dialogue on adopting an appropriate front."
Leonel Gomez, a Salvadoran security consultant, said the danger of such a reaction force is that it might become an "out-of-control SWAT team."
"Who would come up with the intelligence on which the team would act? Would it be Guatemala? Honduras? El Salvador? Without coordination of intelligence, responding in a violent manner and without oversight, it would only engender more violence," Gomez said.
Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said any regional military force with U.S. involvement would raise sovereignty issues but that Latin America should debate some sort of "collective mechanism to deal with these unconventional security threats."
The Central American nations can't rely on the United States to be the "uber-organizer of all that. The United States is stretched too thin," she said.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Chris Kraul reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Alex Renderos from San Salvador.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.