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Bush Seeking Aid for Mexico In Drug Fight

Mexico's foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, called the request "a program of cooperation" rather than an aid package, and said it would give Mexico "better tools to protect the population from organized crime."

The proposal could face difficulties in Congress, where some members have complained that Mexico and the Bush administration have been negotiating for months in secret.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he plans to hold a hearing on the proposal Thursday.

"Congress was not consulted as the plan was developed. This is not a good way to kick off such an important effort to fight the increase in narco-trafficking and violence in the region," Engel said in a statement. "I hope that the administration will be more forthcoming with members of Congress now that they have announced the plan."

Few hard details are known about the Mexico aid package, which has been dubbed the Merida Initiative because Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calder¿n discussed it during a summit in the Yucatan city in March.

The naming of the proposal has become a nettlesome issue, illustrating the sensitivities of talks between Mexico and the United States.

In Mexico, the news media have dubbed it Plan Mexico, a moniker that infuriates top Mexican officials because of its similarity to Plan Colombia, an ongoing, multibillion-dollar program launched seven years ago that sent U.S. troops to Colombia as part of an effort to eradicate coca production and battle Marxist rebels.

The State Department released a general outline of the Mexico proposal Monday, but Shannon declined to go into detail until meeting with members of Congress on Tuesday. Shannon also said it was too early to say how many years the program would last.

Shannon said the aid package would emphasize the use of civilian authorities to combat drug cartels, but he added, "We recognize that the military of Mexico does have a role to play."

Bush administration officials have praised Calder¿n for deploying more than 20,000 soldiers and federal police officers to fight drug gangs, but human rights groups have complained about use of the military after a series of rapes and rights violations in which security forces were allegedly involved.

Rights groups have also expressed concerns about whether training conducted by the United States could someday help another generation of Mexican cartel assassins. U.S. military instructors are widely believed to have been involved in training some members of Los Zetas, a group of former elite Mexican troops who serve as hit men for the powerful Gulf cartel.

Shannon, who said he is aware of the history of Los Zetas, said, "We can't allow ourselves to be dominated by fear about what might happen."

Joy Olson, director of the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America, said Monday she is concerned that the Bush administration did not say which Mexican agencies would receive aid money.

"If they are allocated to civilian control structures, the funds are more likely to have a positive effect in strengthening the rule of law and civilian institutions," Olson said. "If funds are sent directly to the receiving countries' military forces, the plan could undermine civilian control of the armed forces and weaken efforts to strengthen civilian public security institutions."

The administration released even fewer details about the Central American aid plan, which it said would help combat drugs and human trafficking. Those funds, Shannon said in the conference call, would be "shared in some fashion with all the Central American countries."

Staff writers Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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