President Bush says the United States is in the process of finalizing a strategy to help Central American countries deal with drug and crime issues.

Mr. Bush said he has asked El Salvador's President Elias Antonio Saca to help lead the effort. The two leaders met at the White House Thursday, to discuss security issues, the importance of democracy in the region and regional economic integration.

Mr. Saca, in his remarks, thanked the United States for its support of security initiatives designed to enhance the stability of the region.

The Salvadoran leader said the two also discussed free trade issues, saying he believes free trade and openness benefits lower income people.

President Saca said in an interview with VOA's Spanish service Wednesday that the relationship between the United States and El Salvador is a friendly one. He said it is not just among the leaders of both countries but the people as well.

Mr. Saca said the relationship with the U.S. is based on shared democratic values.

A recent White House statement described the Central American nation as a firm partner in what the Bush administration calls the war on terror.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited El Salvador last month, saying the country's contributions in Iraq made it "one of the most faithful coalition partners." President Saca told VOA El Salvador supports the U.S. mission in Iraq and that his country's troops are there for humanitarian purposes.