U.S. Aid Delays in Drug War Criticized

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- After promising $1.4 billion last year under a landmark initiative to help fight drug trafficking in Mexico, the U.S. government has spent almost none of the money, fanning criticism on both sides of the border that the United States is failing to respond quickly to the deepening crisis.

In June, Congress appropriated $400 million to assist Mexico under the first installment of the Merida Initiative, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The three-year aid package was passed as an emergency measure because of deteriorating security in Mexico. In December, the State Department announced that $197 million had been "released."

But a closer examination shows that just two small projects under Merida -- the delivery of high-speed computer servers in December and an arms-trafficking workshop attended by senior U.S. officials at a Mexican resort last week -- have been completed.

U.S. officials acknowledged that about $7 million from the aid package has been spent -- mostly on administration and planning. The most critical items, a $50 million surveillance plane and five rapid-response helicopters, may take as long as two years to deliver.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón recently complained about the delays to visiting U.S. congressional delegations, American officials said. Calderón negotiated the aid package shortly after taking office in December 2006. He and Bush announced the agreement in October 2007, calling Merida a symbol of the two nations' shared responsibility for the drug problem.

Calderón has since deployed 45,000 troops to fight drug traffickers. He also has launched the most ambitious law enforcement reforms in Mexico's history, increasing his security budget by nearly 100 percent. More than 10,100 Mexicans have died over the past three years in drug violence fueled in part by the U.S. drug market and illegal weapons smuggled south.

The delays have fed criticism among Mexicans already skeptical of the U.S. commitment to the drug war. César Duarte, president of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies, said the Merida Initiative has come to symbolize Mexico's unequal relationship with the United States.

"The Merida plan has been overly publicized but with very little actual effect for the magnitude of problems that we are facing," Duarte said in an interview. "We are fighting in the streets, Mexicans killing Mexicans, using arms that were illegally exported from the United States, and it is our soldiers who are putting themselves in the line of fire to stop the flow of drugs. What we need is not some overly publicized Merida plan. We need true solidarity."

Antonio O. Garza Jr., who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009, said he fears that the spirit of cooperation forged under Merida is slipping away. He said the delays have raised suspicions among Mexicans that the U.S. government, while praising Calderón as a courageous crime-fighter, is leaving him hanging out to dry.

"You bet I'm concerned," Garza said. "We're saying all the right things. But attaboys, however genuine, aren't the same as being there for Calderón with money, marbles and chalk."

American officials attributed the delays to cumbersome U.S. government contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies.

The Merida Initiative is 10 times as large as any previous American anti-drug assistance package to Mexico. It may require a staff of up to 50 people at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to administer. U.S. officials said they want to ensure that safeguards are in place so the money is accounted for and programs are monitored.

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