U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is hosting a meeting in Miami of his counterparts from all seven Central American countries this week. It is the first such meeting, and U.S. officials say it reflects stronger regional identity and increased capabilities in the countries involved.

The Defense Department says the meeting will focus on such issues as regional security cooperation, fighting criminal gangs and narcotics traffickers and maritime security. In addition, the officials are to discuss the creation of two regional forces that would draw on the capabilities of all of the countries - a joint peacekeeping unit that could participate in operations around the world and a rapid response force for use in regional disasters.

Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita says Secretary Rumsfeld decided to hold this first-ever regional security meeting at the ministerial level to strengthen Central America's already growing identity and capability.

"These are countries that are starting, together, themselves to identify as a region, as the Central American region," Mr. DiRita says. "The Central American Free Trade Agreement is one example. Countries in that region, for example, have contributed troops to Iraq, and they've contributed at least a commitment to work on maybe joint peacekeeping activities, things of that nature. So, it's developing an identity as a component of the inter-American system and I think the Secretary would very much like to strengthen that."

The meeting comes just a few days after torrential rains caused hundreds of deaths in Central America, some of them from massive mudslides in Guatemala. That is the kind of disaster that could be addressed by a regional rapid reaction force.

In addition, officials say the ministers will discuss the role improved security can play in promoting economic development.

Secretary Rumsfeld will be hosting defense ministers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize, as well as security ministers from Costa Rica and Panama. Mexico, the Dominican Republic and several other countries in the region are sending observers.