By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
MEXICO CITY, Oct. 22 -- President Bush announced Monday in Washington that he will ask Congress to approve a $500 million package to help Mexico fight drug cartels, the largest international anti-drug effort by the United States in nearly a decade.
The proposal could represent a seismic shift in relations between the two countries, whose law enforcement agencies and policymakers have often bickered over the drug war, as well as other hugely contentious issues such as immigration reform and trade.
U.S. and Mexican negotiators reached the agreement in secrecy. Some in Mexico worried that an aid package would infringe upon its sovereignty, and concerns surfaced in the United States about costs and strategy in light of the oft-criticized effort to combat drugs in Colombia.
The much-anticipated Mexico aid plan, which is included in the president's $46 billion supplemental budget request for war funding, would pay for helicopters, canine units, communications gear and inspection equipment, the State Department said.
The program also would include training and technical advice on vetting new police officers, and case-management software to track investigations in a nation where drug kingpins have infiltrated many state and local governments and infighting among drug traffickers has cost more than 4,000 lives in the past 22 months.
The violence is particularly acute in northern Mexico, where gunfights frequently spill across the U.S. border, a major reason congressional delegations in Texas and other border states have pushed for the aid deal.
Mexico's drug cartels have been engaged in a fierce war for at least two years as they compete for lucrative trade routes and to try to fill power vacuums left after the extradition of several major cartel leaders to face trial in the United States.
Although the bulk of U.S. attention is focused on Mexico, Bush also announced an additional $50 million in proposed aid for Central American nations that have been beset by rampant violence and drug cartel corruption as traffickers seek new routes for the tons of cocaine and other drugs that flow into the United States every day.
The aid packages are part of what the Bush administration hopes will be a multiyear, $1.4 billion initiative.
Bush barely mentioned the package in his budget remarks. But within minutes of his announcement, the White House -- cognizant of possible opposition in Congress -- launched a public relations offensive, distributing a statement about the aid plan that was followed by enthusiastic news releases from the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Antonio O. Garza Jr., and the State Department.
"This initiative . . . represents a fundamental shift in strengthening our strategic partnership and is the single most aggressive undertaking ever to combat Mexican drug cartels," Garza said.
In a conference call with reporters, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the State Department's top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, hailed the president's request as "historic" and predicted it could create "a new paradigm" in U.S.-Mexico relations.
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.