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U.S. Anti-Drug Aid Would Target Mexican Cartels

U.S. lawmakers, who stressed that the initiative for Mexico is not modeled on Plan Colombia, have been traveling to Mexico to meet with legislators here in hopes of easing concerns. "We're seeing a Mexican Congress that's more engaged, that's willing and able for the first time in history to be a partner with the [U.S.] administration, and they're asking the questions about what the president's policies are, what the authorities need, and what are the implications of working closely with the U.S.," Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) said in an interview. "We've been neighbors and allies but this takes that relationship to a new level."

In an interview, Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, declined to discuss details of the plan. But he noted that Bush has recently met with Calderón and Central America leaders to discuss ways to work together to fight against drug traffickers and gangs that have besieged the region.

Central America is a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine that arrives by sea; Mexican cartels funnel tons of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine across the border into the United States.

"All three of us, the United States, Mexico and the Central American countries, had to find a way to coordinate our activities and work better together and develop a regional strategy to combat the problems that we face," Shannon said.

The Mexican government cringes at comparisons with Colombia, which unlike Mexico is locked in a 40-year-old guerrilla war and also is the world's largest cocaine producer. As part of Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, the United States provided Black Hawk helicopters, sensitive intelligence-gathering technology, military, police and intelligence training, and a fleet of crop-dusters to help the Colombian government push back Marxist guerrillas and eradicate drug crops. Though that program helped President Álvaro Uribe curtail violence, critics have said it fell far short in its initial objective of delivering a mortal blow to the cocaine business.

Mexican authorities are leery of allowing the U.S. military into the country, even for training purposes, because of historical wounds that date to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Maureen Meyer, a policy analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington policy group, said Mexican anti-drug police have a history of receiving low-key training from American specialists. But large-scale training on Mexican soil would be another matter, she said.

"That would be the most contentious point, with the Mexican Congress and Mexicans in general," she said.

That hesitance could block American specialists from going to Mexico to conduct training for troops and police, as well as for prosecutors and judges. Many U.S. officials say that such flexibility would be critical to the plan.

"How do we provide assistance without making the Mexicans too uncomfortable?" Cuellar asked. "That's going to be tightrope we have to walk."

Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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