Why U.S. to Help Mexico Fight Drugs Should Stay on Schedule

Thursday, August 13, 2009

OVER THE past three years, thousands of Mexican citizens have been slaughtered, kidnapped or threatened by drug cartels intent on fighting back against government efforts to rein in their increasingly ferocious trade. The United States agreed to provide Mexico and neighboring countries with $1.4 billion in aid to help combat the cartels, yet tens of millions of dollars could be lost because of a standoff between the State Department and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Mr. Leahy chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department, which administers the Mexican aid program known as the Merida Initiative. The program calls for the United States to provide training and equipment, including helicopters and surveillance planes, to the Mexican government; the plan does not include direct cash aid. Fifteen percent of the aid must be withheld until the State Department issues a report on Mexico's progress in a number of areas, including "transparency and accountability" of the federal police force and military; investigation and prosecution of government actors who have been "credibly alleged to have committed violations of human rights"; and a ban on the use of testimony elicited through "torture or other ill-treatment."

The State Department was poised to submit a progress report last week but pulled back after an aide to Mr. Leahy was briefed and expressed dissatisfaction with the thoroughness and accuracy of the findings. Some $62 million in aid is hanging in the balance and could revert to the Treasury unless the report is submitted by Sept. 30.

Human rights abuses by the Mexican police and military continue. More must be done to eradicate these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable. But the State Department, while acknowledging problems, makes a compelling case that Mexico has made important advances, including increased dialogue with the human rights groups and creation of civilian oversight of the federal police. Mr. Leahy and human rights groups clearly hope to use the Merida funds as leverage in their quest to expedite such progress. But withholding aid would be counterproductive.

The Merida Initiative is barely a year old; entrenched problems of police and military corruption and abuses cannot be solved overnight. The United States can best assist by providing all of the aid promised -- and promptly.

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