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by Diego Cevallos

Bush Giving Mexico $1 Billion to Fight Drug War

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Doubt, mistrust and political friction have arisen over the so-called Merida Initiative, negotiated virtually in secret by the governments of Mexico and the United States. Although it is being touted as an anti-drug assistance program, it also includes measures for tighter border security and action against terrorism.

The appropriations request submitted to Congress on Oct. 22 by the Bush administration is for an aid package to Mexico amounting to $1.4 billion over three years, starting in 2008.

That would represent a massive increase on the $40 million a year the U.S. presently provides Mexico in anti-drug aid.

The program would deliver equipment for interdiction and surveillance and carry out personnel training and development of joint intelligence strategies, in lieu of cash payments.

But lawmakers in both countries complained of the lack of prior information about the agreement, and the U.S. Congress said that its approval was still in doubt.

Officials in Washington said the aid plan is unprecedented.

John Negroponte, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, and Tom Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, met in Mexico this week with government officials, lawmakers and heads of media outlets to promote the Merida Initiative.

At the meetings, they said that 40 percent of the first $500 million of aid for 2008 would go to support the action of the Mexican armed forces, which are fully involved in the war on drug mafias, and the rest to civilian agencies (police, migration officials and others).

However, the official document states that 61 percent of the aid will go to the Defense Ministry and the Mexican navy, according to the local newspaper El Universal, which claims it possesses the original version of the plan.

Although Mexican legislators have asked for a copy of the Merida Initiative, the government of conservative President Felipe Calderon has so far refused to release it, on the grounds that it is only an agreement as yet and not the final plan.

Negroponte and Shannon admitted that there has been a lack of transparency and information surrounding the initiative, which they promised to rectify. However, they did not divulge the text of the agreement under discussion, saying that they had to brief the U.S. Congress first.

Only a trickle of information about the program has reached Mexico, through leaks originating in the U.S. Congress and remarks by officials in Washington.

One thing that has become clear is that the aid is intended not only for combating drug trafficking, but also for beefing up security along Mexico's borders, with the U.S. to the north and with Central America (Guatemala and Belize) to the south.

In addition, there will be support for tracking down terrorists, and programs to fight corruption in the police and improve the administration of justice.

"Why this secretiveness, why this reluctance to provide information about the plan? Is there something about it that the Mexican government wants to keep in the dark?" political scientist Daniel Blanco asked, in an interview with IPS.

Mexican officials say that the Merida Initiative indicates that the United States has accepted its shared responsibility for the drug trade, without intruding on Mexico's sovereignty. They say the idea behind the plan was Mexico's, and was presented during a meeting in March between Calderon and Bush in Merida, in the southeast of Mexico.

At the meeting, the Mexican president asked Bush to understand that the war on drugs required the active participation of the U.S., because until U.S. demand for drugs was reduced, it would be very difficult to limit the supply.

However, the Merida Initiative says nothing about commitments to reduce drug consumption or to invest in education and health as more effective, long-term ways of curbing the problem. On the contrary, the plan is aimed exclusively at reinforcing the punitive, military approach to combating drug mafias.

"It insists on approaching drug trafficking as a war, rather than as a public health problem to be prevented," said Professor Javier Oliva at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Mexico and other Latin American countries have been implementing drug control plans with the support of the United States since the 1980s. These have emphasized pursuit of drug traffickers, destruction of coca plantations, the treatment of consumers as criminals, and an increasingly high-profile role for the armed forces. Critics of this strategy say that the results have been a rise in violence in producing countries, a decaying of the social fabric, increased domestic consumption and some variability in the amount of drugs smuggled into the United States, the world's biggest market for illegal drugs.

Mexican opposition leader Andres Lopez Obrador said that the Merida Initiative would allow the U.S. government to take over the country and help itself to Mexican oil and other national wealth.

"I demand that the puppet Calderon show his face and explain this agreement. What exactly did he promise to do? There is no way that we are going to accept an agreement that is kept under wraps," he said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, in contrast, told lawmakers that the plan does not violate Mexican sovereignty and stated repeatedly that no U.S. troops will enter Mexican territory.

She said that if the U.S. Congress introduces changes to the Merida Initiative that impose conditions on Mexico, the Calderon administration might even reject the project.

"There is no obligation for us to accept their support if conditions are attached. There is no hurry, and we will wait to see what emerges from the U.S. legislative process," which might take until early 2008, she said.

The leftwing opposition in Mexico compares the proposed aid program to the U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy in operation in Colombia since 2000, which includes the deployment of U.S. military advisers.

But Mexican and U.S. officials stress that there is no relation between Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, which the press has dubbed "Plan Mexico."

A separate aid package of $50 million for anti-drug actions in other Central American countries was also announced. Again, this raised suspicions because Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya said he knew nothing about it.

"The shroud of secrecy surrounding the negotiations has awakened speculation which may sound absurd, but which is valid when so much money is at stake. The United States doesn't give something for nothing," said political scientist Blanco.

But Federico Reyes, a writer and columnist for the newspaper Reforma, said the knee-jerk, fanatically nationalist reactions to the prospect of U.S. aid were remarkable. Beyond the mistakes made with the announcement and the confusion over the figures, he said, the news should have met with approval.

Most of the support offered is in kind, in equipment and training. There is no question of giving up operational control, he argued., adding that at last the U.S. government is taking its share of responsibility, and now we are all moaning and wailing.

The Calderon administration, which took office in December, sent the armed forces into battle with drug traffickers with a more prominent role than they had been given by any previous government, although they have been involved in the war on drugs since the late 1980s.

Using the army for what is essentially police work has left a trail of human rights violations, according to reports by the governmental National Commission of Human Rights.

But the U.S. government has backed this military strategy and congratulated Mexico on doing everything necessary to defeat the drug trade.

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Albion Monitor   November 1, 2007   (

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