Pentagon officials estimate it would cost $3.59 million to "make functional" 20 of the 72 Huey helicopters that Mexico returned to the United States last month. An Oct. 6 article used congressional estimates of $1.4 million per helicopter. Pentagon officials said at the time that they could not provide cost figures. (Published 10/16/1999)

Three years ago, U.S. and Mexican officials lauded the donation of 73 U.S. Army helicopters to Mexico for narcotics interdiction as a potent symbol of cooperation in the war against drug trafficking.

Last month, 72 of the Vietnam War-vintage choppers were loaded unceremoniously onto trucks and driven back to the United States, rejected as junk by a frustrated Mexican military that never got more than a dozen of the clunkers airborne at any one time, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. The 73rd helicopter had already been destroyed in a crash.

"This is a microcosm of the schizophrenia of the U.S. policy in fighting drugs," said a congressional staff member who has followed the saga of the UH-1H Huey helicopters. "We always try to do it on the cheap. . . . Throwing these choppers at Mexico was an ill-conceived initiative in the first place. The administration saw the choppers as a way to leverage open the door and have more cooperation. But it was star-crossed when it got down to the hardware."

U.S. officials agreed earlier this year to refurbish 20 of the helicopters at U.S. expense, at a cost of about $1.4 million per chopper. But the Mexican military has told its U.S. counterparts it still does not want them, according to Pentagon officials. Mexican officials said civilian law enforcement agencies are considering accepting the U.S. offer, but meanwhile the aircraft are in the United States.

The donated helicopters were intended to boost the Mexican military's efforts to combat drug production and trafficking, improving the mobility of anti-drug squads over rough terrain. But the entire fleet had been grounded since March 1998, when two Mexican Army crew members were killed in a crash that contributed to a temporary worldwide stand-down of all Hueys because of possibly faulty gearboxes.

"The government of Mexico has decided it does not believe it is cost-effective for them to continue to fly them and asked us to take them back," said a senior U.S. Defense Department official. "We've taken all the helicopters back."

The aircraft have been mired in controversy since the Clinton administration conceived the program in 1996 as its most visible symbol of improving relations between the United States and Mexico. That was a time when such symbols were needed; the U.S. Congress was considering decertifying the southern neighbor as a cooperative partner in combating drug trafficking.

"Everybody's happy to be in the photo signing the document saying we're going to have a lot of cooperation with the U.S.," said one Mexican official who has monitored the controversy. "But the Mexican generals have been very angry since the beginning . . . as soon as they saw the technical conditions" of the helicopters.

In the view of Mexican officials, not only did the U.S. Army send aging castoffs, but the U.S. Congress insisted on American oversight of the helicopters as a result of Mexico's use of law enforcement helicopters donated earlier to help quell the Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994. The U.S. oversight demands created headaches for Mexican politicians in a heavily nationalistic country that has not forgotten various U.S. military invasions over the last two centuries.

Even before the Mexican military suffered two fatalities in the March 1998 Huey crash, it was having difficulty keeping the helicopters in service. So few helicopters were usable Mexican newspapers began referring to them in headlines as "junk helicopters."

Last year, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, reported that the choppers had been "of limited usefulness" to Mexico "because they cannot perform some counter-narcotics missions and lack adequate logistical support."

Mexican officials insist that the inability to use the helicopters has not hampered their drug enforcement efforts. The Mexican Embassy in Washington said the helicopters flew 4,766 missions totaling 8,876 flight hours when they were usable.