Obama concludes Latin America trip with trade focus

SAN JOSE (AFP) - US President Barack Obama turned the spotlight on economic ties with Latin America on Saturday, as he concluded a three-day trip to a region roiled by drug violence.

Mr Obama sought to shift the narrative away from the drug war during visits to Mexico and Costa Rica this week, praising trade as a path to fighting poverty and creating jobs that turn young people away from a life of crime.

"The United States recognises that our fate is tied up with your success," Mr Obama told an economic forum in San Jose alongside Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla before flying back to Washington.

"It's a partnership based on equality and mutual respect, mutual interests," he said, one day after attending a summit with Central American leaders. "If you're doing well, we'll do better, if we're doing well, we think your situation improves."

The US leader, turning his gaze to domestic issues, also highlighted commerce with neighbours as a way to generate jobs in the United States, one day after a jobs report showed the unemployment rate falling to 7.5 per cent.

"Latin America represents an incredible opportunity for the United States, especially when it comes to my top priority as president: creating good, middle-class jobs," he said in his weekly radio address.

More than 40 per cent of US exports go to the Americas, and US trade there is growing faster than in the rest of the world, he said.

"That's why I visited Latin America this week - to work with leaders to deepen our economic ties and expand trade between our nations," said Mr Obama.

At the economic forum, Mr Obama said Central American leaders brought up energy in their discussions at a summit late Friday and that they shared the goal of creating more renewable energy sources.

"It's my view that if any of us find good answers to renewable energy, that will spread like wildfire and everybody will ultimately benefit," he said.

Turning to another domestic issue dear to Latin Americans, he told the forum that it was important to have a "well managed border" and that passing comprehensive immigration reform "can make an enormous difference."

Mr Obama is pressing the US Congress to pass immigration reform, to bring 11 million undocumented workers - most of them from Mexico and Central America - "out of the shadows" with a path toward citizenship.

The US president had struck similar themes during a 24-hour trip in Mexico, highlighting the huge US-Mexican trade ties, vowing to push for immigration reform and to maintain the cooperation against drug cartels.

Late Friday, the seven leaders of Central America made clear they wanted to discuss ways to improve the battle against drug trafficking, in a region that has suffered tens of thousands of gang-related killings.

The United States has provided US$500 million (S$616.9 million) in security aid to Central America since 2008, but positive effects are hard to see: the murder rate in the region is currently at a staggering 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, five times the world average.

The US leader conceded that US drug addiction was partly to blame for the violence and told his Central American counterparts that human and economic development must also be part of the anti-crime strategy.

"We can't just have a 'law enforcement only' approach," he said, adding that crime prevention, education and building up judicial systems and police forces should be part of the effort.

"We have to think creatively, because obviously some of the things that we're doing have worked, but some things haven't worked," he said.

Chinchilla, whose nation does not have an army, said organised crime must be fought through a more "comprehensive and diverse approach" and "not just the instruments of war." Guatemalan President Otto Perez, whose idea of legalising drugs is opposed by Mr Obama and Central American partners, insisted on finding "alternatives" to combat trafficking.