"Problems like narco-trafficking arise when a country is vulnerable because of poverty and institutions not working for people," he said. "The stronger the economy and institutions for individuals seeking legitimate careers, the less powerful these narco-trafficking operations are going to be."
Obama went on to a closed meeting with the eight-nation Central American Integration System, known by its Spanish initials SICA, which was formed to discuss regional issues.
He said he looked forward to the regional cooperation. But national rivalries that have often blocked cooperation.
Guatemala and Belize maintain a border dispute. Honduras and El Salvador are fighting over the use of the waters and shores of the Gulf of Fonseca, and a conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica has been escalating over the San Juan River border. On top of that, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua often feel excluded because Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras get the bulk of U.S. security aid, said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
"SICA has tried to build itself as the place where all these countries can come together and that can be the distribution point for that aid," Olson said. "But I think the rivalry between these governments gets in the way."
Still, the Central American presidents have come manned to talk about security, an issue they see as directly related to drug consumption in the United States. Some Central American countries have the highest murder rates in the world, with Honduras often called the world's most dangerous country. Leaders here say they want the U.S. to take more responsibility in the fight against drug cartels.
"We need the decided support of the U.S. to attack our common enemy, drug trafficking," Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said Thursday. "Unfortunately, Honduras and the countries of the region bear the dead of a war that we didn't start and that we repudiate. It's time to renew our mutual political cooperation."
The White House doesn't plan to launch any new initiatives with this trip, said Ricardo Zuniga, the lead official for Latin America policy on the U.S. National Security Council. Rather, it wants to talk about better coordination and use of the aid that is already going to the region.
"Besides the United States expressing its deep worry over the deterioration of the region, there isn't much more to expect," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center.
Since 2008, the United States has allocated $496 million in security cooperation to Central America, Zuniga said, and that number isn't expected to increase substantially.
The White House asked for $162 million for the fight against drug trafficking in its 2014 budget through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. That's $26 million more than what was allocated in 2012.
By comparison, Washington has allocated $1.9 billion to Mexico since 2008 for the fight against drug trafficking through the Merida Initiative.
Even on security issues, the countries have difficulty uniting.
"There is no effective cooperation because there is no trust," said Ignacio de Lucas, coordinator of the Network of Prosecutors against Organized Crime, an initiative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that brings together 10 prosecutors from Mexico to Colombia. "Sometimes big projects arise, for example creating a database to cooperate with Interpol, but what information will go there? Without trust there will not be useful information."
The more relevant forum to discuss drug trafficking in the region will be the June general assembly of the Organization of American States, said Guatemalan Foreign Minister Luis Carrera Castro.
Aside from security concerns, Central American presidents also have agreed to prioritize economic issues in their meeting with Obama.
The SICA member governments, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic, want to enhance the trade agreement they've had since 2006 with the United States, said Muni Figueres, Costa Rican Ambassador to the U.S.
Under the CAFTA-DR agreement, U.S. exports to the region have risen to $30 billion in 2012, up 25 percent from 2010 and 80 percent from 2005, according to her embassy's figures.
One of the specific goals for the Obama meeting is a commitment from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to actively participate in a commission tracking the performance of the trade agreement, Figueres said.
"The challenge now is how to facilitate trade to flow better and how to translate the agreement into more jobs and investment," she added.