Time for In-House Cleaning?

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 15, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- For years, Colombia was in a state of denial about drug trafficking. Officials too easily claimed it wasn't their problem, that Colombians were not the consumers of cocaine and heroin. But in the late 1990s, allegations that Colombia was becoming a narco-state led President Andres Pastrana to develop a comprehensive anti-drug strategy, known as Plan Colombia.

Today, Mexico is going through a similar introspection. No one has yet called Mexico a narco-state, but drug-related violence and corruption have become so widespread that President Felipe Calderon has declared war on drug syndicates operating in Mexican territory.

The United States has encouraged these reappraisals sometimes with sticks, now most often with carrots, lots of carrots. Since 2000 it has funneled more than $5 billion into Plan Colombia; now it plans to invest up to $1.4 billion in Mexico for what is being called the Merida Initiative, named for the city where it was proposed. Such financial support has yielded important results. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports, for instance, a 44 percent increase in the street price of a gram of cocaine and a drop in its purity by 15 percent.

Yet the ongoing U.S. efforts to help others eradicate illicit crops, destroy drug labs, dismantle cartels and halt drug shipments may also be masking a denial about the conditions of stateside drug-fighting programs.

Last week, during a congressional hearing about the Merida Initiative hosted by the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Bush administration officials provided a list of programs they hope will be enhanced in order to play a greater supportive role in Mexico's drug-fighting efforts.

Subcommittee Chairman Eliot Engel wasn't too pleased to hear this and criticized the administration for the steady decline in support for domestic treatment and prevention programs since 2005, including a $73 million cut proposed in the 2009 budget.

But according to Robert Charles, who served as assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement between 2003 and 2005, an even more "egregious example of misunderstanding" of how grave the drug problem is in the United States is reflected in the administration's continued cuts in law enforcement funding. While he supports the foreign programs, Charles fears that by undermining U.S. efforts to battle organized crime and drug trafficking, the government appears to be treating symptoms far away for a "disease that is infecting us here."

Task forces that coordinate anti-drug efforts by local, state and federal agents may disappear altogether. In every budget request since 2005, Bush has eliminated all funding for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which underwrites these task forces. While Congress managed to restore some of the funding every year, last-minute negotiations in fiscal 2008 reduced it to $170 million, one-third of the budget allocation in 2007.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Bush, Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs, urged the president to restore funding for the Byrne grants and a community policing program known as COPS. Both programs were marked for no appropriations in Bush's 2009 budget request. In the 1990s, both programs received more than $2 billion per year and helped drive "crime rates down by 30 percent," wrote Biden.

Ronald E. Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations Coalition, calls this "the worst crisis facing drug law enforcement since the creation" of the coalition 14 years ago. The task forces have helped, for instance, in stopping large numbers of weapons from being smuggled into Mexico from the United States, Brooks said. Mexican officials have called arms smuggling the No. 1 crime problem affecting the country's security.

According to DEA testimony at the House hearing, one of the Merida Initiative's main goals is to train and equip police forces in Mexico and Central America so they can better respond to increased drug crime and violence. More specifically, the Bush budget request includes millions to help Mexico's federal police establish new canine drug detection units and improve communication technology in the Mexican intelligence service.

Meanwhile, violent crime in the United States is on the rise. Last September, the FBI reported a two-year "upward trend" after a relative lull in violence between 2002 and 2004. Yet the DEA was under a hiring freeze until last month, and the agency has been struggling to find funds to upgrade communications equipment.

After years of looking every which way to support anti-drug efforts abroad, the time may be ripe for the United States to begin looking more inward.

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