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U.S. Aid Delays in Drug War Criticized

"We are moving as fast as we can, but we also have to do this right," said Roberta S. Jacobson, who, as deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, helped negotiate the Merida Initiative. "We are creating a $1 billion program essentially from scratch, and if we try and move faster than our own procedures -- and those of Mexico -- can manage, we risk the careful oversight and monitoring that we and Congress expect."

Jacobson and others said they expected the assistance to flow more quickly over the next few months, as requirements are met and staffing is completed. The government has to borrow personnel from other U.S. embassies to help the embassy in Mexico City ramp up.

The assistance package was born in closed-door meetings between Bush and Calderón in the Yucatan capital of Merida in March 2007. Details were kept secret, but when the two governments announced the agreement Oct. 22, 2007, Garza called it "the single most aggressive undertaking ever to combat Mexican drug cartels."

Mexico is to receive about $116.5 million in foreign military financing under the first installment of Merida. Only four countries -- Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan -- receive more under the State Department program, according to department figures.

Merida has at its centerpiece the transfer of sophisticated technology to detect weapons, bulk cash and drugs; surveillance and intelligence-gathering packages; training programs for police and prison guards; as well as big-ticket aviation hardware.

A close adviser to Calderón on the drug war said: "The criminal organizations can buy tons and tons of night-vision goggles and weapons and satellite communications equipment on the black market. I need to get the U.S. Congress to provide me with that same equipment to tackle these guys."

The most expensive items are aircraft: $50 million for one CASA CN-235 plane for the Mexican navy, similar to the medium-range surveillance aircraft used by the U.S. Coast Guard, and $65 million for five Bell 412 helicopters, twin-engine workhorses that are employed by companies and militaries around the world.

The Mexicans see the helicopters as vital, allowing authorities to reach high-value targets anywhere in the country within 90 minutes. The Bell 412 can travel nonstop for nearly 500 miles and can reach speeds of up to 150 miles an hour.

The Mexican government was initially told that it would receive eight new helicopters. After Congress cut $100 million from the initial Bush proposal, the number was reduced to five.

Defense Department procurement officials later informed the State Department that by the time all the legal hurdles were met, the helicopters would have to be purchased at 2010 prices, and that the budget would support only three, said a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations.

Mexican officials were furious, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue to the bilateral relationship. The State Department has since worked to expedite the procedures for foreign military assistance. U.S. officials are hopeful that Mexico will receive five helicopters by the end of this year, but the State Department and the Pentagon have given a timetable of 18 to 24 months after the contract is signed. The contract with Bell cannot be negotiated until a 30-day congressional notification period expires in mid-April.

"It's pretty disappointing to me that we see the urgency, the bodies being decapitated, and we say, 'We'll get the helicopters to you in 24 months,' " said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations state, foreign operations and related programs subcommittee, in a hearing two weeks ago. "If we're really helping them and we're pouring in all this money, where's the product?"

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