Is the U.S. doing enough to help dying Juarez?

Thursday, March 18, 2010; A18

THE BRUTAL slaying of three people connected to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, last weekend has called attention to a crisis that is getting too little attention and resources in Washington: Mexico's desperate battle against drug traffickers. For Juarez, and for the democratic government of Felipe Calderón, this has become a fight for survival -- a war as bloody and as important as those being fought in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. But though Mexican stability is a vital interest of the United States, the federal government's investment in the problem is far below what it should be, on both sides of the border.

The assassination-style killing of the two Americans and a Mexican married to a consular employee as they drove home from a children's birthday party was shocking -- but no more so than scores of other incidents in Juarez. The city of 1.3 million, which is adjacent to El Paso, Tex., has suffered 500 murders so far this year -- and 2,600 in 2009. This is in spite of the deployment of 10,000 troops in the city by Mr. Calderón, who declared war on the drug traffickers after taking office in 2006. Juarez is dying: Thousands of shops have closed, and as many as 200,000 people have fled the city.

The good news here is that security cooperation between the United States and Mexico has improved enormously during Mr. Calderón's tenure. The Merida initiative, launched by the Bush administration, has provided $1.3 billion in aid since 2008, including the supply of helicopters, scanners and other equipment for Mexican security forces. But the bad news is that the aid has been painfully slow in coming -- the Mexicans are still waiting for Blackhawk helicopters -- and now it is set to decline. The Obama administration is proposing $310 million in aid for Mexico in next year's budget, down 30 percent from current levels.

Administration officials say that the aid decline is sensible because Mexico has obtained funding for the expensive equipment it needs. A new four-pronged architecture for Merida has been drawn up that adds police and judicial training, border projects, and the promotion of civil society and human rights to the original focus on attacking drug gangs and their leaders. The new programs are to be ratified next week at a bilateral cabinet meeting in Mexico that will be attended by a host of senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The broadening of the Merida program is logical. Mr. Calderón has recognized that military force alone will not save Juarez, and in any case the Mexican army and Congress remain cautious about further expanding such collaboration with the United States. Still, given that the level of violence is still rising, the sharp reduction in U.S. assistance makes little sense. The United States should be doing everything that Mexico will allow it to do to aid its security forces. It also should be doing more on the U.S. side of the border. While the Obama administration has taken some steps to crack down on the trafficking of guns to Mexico, most of the guns of the drug gangs still come from the United States.

The administration has an abundance of foreign challenges. But it's hard to think of a higher priority than stabilizing a neighbor and major trading partner. The Obama administration and Congress should be expanding, not cutting back, funding for the Merida initiative.

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