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U.S. Aid Delays in Drug War Criticized

"You could send down a dozen Black Hawk helicopters, complete with training teams, in a matter of a few months," said Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general and director of national drug policy in the Clinton administration. "What are we doing? They're in trouble. They're serious. This is a national priority, and we ought to take it seriously."

U.S. officials say that the Mexican government shares responsibility for the delay on the helicopters. The Mexican government changed the specifications it wanted and slowed the procurement process further by waiting four months before submitting a formal letter requesting the aid.

Merida also includes $55 million for scanners and X-ray vans for the federal police and customs. The inspection equipment would be used to find drugs, arms and cash in operations across Mexico and at 16 of the country's 48 ports of entry, which include airports, seaports and border crossings.

David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, which is leading implementation of the Merida Initiative, recently told Congress that specifications for this detection equipment are still being completed, after which the contracting process would begin. "We anticipate this equipment will be on the ground around September," he said. "It's highly technical gadgetry. You have to build it from scratch."

Johnson told Congress, "We do not believe that these delays have impacted negatively on Mexico's counter-narcotics efforts."

One of the first projects under Merida was a bilateral arms-trafficking workshop at the Camino Real resort hotel in Cuernavaca last week. The event garnered wide media attention but produced no announcements of new joint crime-fighting projects. A U.S. official said about $20,000 in American taxpayer money was spent on the meeting.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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