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.
"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?"
"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.