Pubdate: Thu, 15 Nov 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Section: A
Author: Tina Marie Macias, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Corruption - Outside U.S.)


Members Say That Bush's $1.4-Billion Merida Initiative Focusing on 
Mexico Would Spend Money Unwisely, That Supplies Could Be Misused, 
and That Congress Should Have Been Involved in Planning.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposal to send $1.4 billion worth of 
equipment to Mexico and six South American nations to combat drug 
cartels was met with hostility from members of a House committee that 
examined the plan for the first time Wednesday.

Although most agreed that an initiative to stop drug cartels was 
overdue, Bush's plan worried some members of the House Foreign 
Affairs Committee. They said they thought that more money should be 
spent to "curb the appetite" for drugs, feared that corrupt Mexican 
military and police would take and misuse equipment, and were angry 
that Congress had not been aware that such a plan was being considered.

"We first learned of the initiative from the media. For an 
administration which is not particularly noted for its 
bipartisanship, this cavalier disregard of congressional concern is 
deeply disturbing," said committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame).

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said that by bypassing Congress' opinion, 
Bush was putting America's foreign relations in jeopardy.

"The Congress is not just a bank for the president to come to us for 
money. This kind of foreign policy is what put the U.S. in the 
position it's in worldwide," he said. "We're not just here to be a 
rubber stamp."

In October, after months of closed-door negotiations, Bush unveiled 
the Merida Initiative, named after the Mexican city where most of the 
negotiations were held. Mexico's Felipe Calderon has made the drug 
war the focus of his presidency, sending army troops to fight drug 
cartels that have killed 4,000 people in the last two years.

The initial $550 million for the plan is part of the administration's 
fiscal 2008 supplemental funding request for military spending in 
Iraq and Afghanistan. The first payment would allot $500 million to 
Mexico and spread $50 million among six South American countries.

The first payment would cover $208 million worth of helicopters for 
Mexico, and the rest would be used to train military personnel and 
provide equipment and technology.

The equipment would include a secure communications network, data 
management and forensic analysis tools, and information technology to 
improve migration databases and document verification, said David T. 
Johnson, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of International 
Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

But many provisions of the plan were received skeptically by 
lawmakers from both major parties.

Twelve years ago, Lantos said, the U.S. gave 73 helicopters to 
Mexico. "They were used and did not work well, and we ended up with 
the Mexicans giving them back to us," he said.

Republicans focused on concerns about corruption.

"I read that two girls crossed the border for a concert and were 
kidnapped by the police and taken to the traffickers as a gift -- by 
the police," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). "It's very worrisome 
for me that we're going to give them money and expect them to spend 
it correctly."

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) displayed a photograph that he said showed 
traffickers dressed in Mexican military garb crossing the Rio Grande 
with AK-47s and "backpacks full of cocaine."

Most panel members agreed that more training was needed, but worried 
that many well-trained soldiers join drug traffickers' paramilitary 
groups, which pay more than the army, and use their knowledge of 
military secrets against Mexican forces. Equipment provided could 
also be stolen and used against Mexican police.

The Merida Initiative, a three-year aid program, is the largest aid 
plan to combat drug cartels in Latin America since Plan Colombia 
began seven years ago. That program has strengthened Colombia's 
judicial and police institutions, but has done little to halt the 
flow of cocaine.

U.S. officials estimate that drug traffickers transfer between $8 
billion and $24 billion in profits from the U.S. to Mexico annually.

The legislators were split on how to approach the war on drugs, with 
some saying that attempts at the border had failed and that money 
should be spent on anti-drug programs. Others thought there had been 
success in recent years.

"The request comes at a unique time, when the transit zone efforts in 
Central America and Mexico are all starting to pay big dividends, 
particularly on the deadly cocaine front," said Rep. Ileana 
Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the committee's top Republican. She said the 
recent seizure in Mexico of more than 20 tons of cocaine, worth $2.7 
billion, showed that "Mexico is serious about tackling this challenge." 
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