Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jan 2008
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2008 The Dallas Morning News
Authors: Alfredo Corchado, Tim Connolly, Laurence Iliff  / The Dallas 
Morning News


After Record Year Of Killings, Cartels May Have Violent Answer To 
Plan For $500 Million In U.S. Anti-Drug Aid

WASHINGTON - Mexico recorded its deadliest year yet of drug-related 
killings in 2007, and the violence is expected to increase if an 
initial $500 million U.S. aid package to Mexico is approved by 
Congress in 2008, U.S. and Mexican officials and analysts say. 
Drug-related killings surpassed 2,500 in 2007, eclipsing 2006's 
figure of more than 2,100, according to the Austin-based Stratfor 
consulting firm. The killings underscore the timing of the Merida 
Initiative, an anti-drug agreement forged by Presidents Bush and 
Felipe Calderon and representing a new strategy of "shared 
responsibility," U.S. and Mexican officials said in interviews. Much 
of the aid would be used for helicopters, technology and information 
sharing. But U.S. law enforcement officials and analysts caution that 
even with the unprecedented level of anti-drug aid to Mexico, 
violence could actually rise as drug cartels respond forcefully to 
increased U.S. and Mexican pressure. One U.S. law enforcement 
official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned that 2008 "may 
prove to be even deadlier.

We expect drug traffickers to respond aggressively to combined U.S. 
and Mexican actions and pressure." Growing U.S.-Mexico cooperation 
will force "drug cartels to increase the political ante by increasing 
the level of violence," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a political 
consultant with Washington-based Peschard-Sverdrup & Associates. 
Especially vulnerable are Mexican law enforcement agents, said U.S. 
and Mexican officials.

Over the weekend, gunmen ambushed a convoy transporting three alleged 
kidnappers and killed seven police officers near Zacatecas. Hours 
earlier, a top law enforcement official was killed in the state of 
Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. "When pressure on them [drug 
traffickers] increases or continues from law enforcement officials, 
the usual response is to kick up the violence, especially directed at 
government and law enforcement officials, which might explain why 
deaths of law enforcement officials are up," said a senior U.S. 
official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Per the longer 
term, you certainly expect violence to decrease as the power of the 
cartels is broken, but not necessarily in the short term." Cocaine 
seizures Mexican authorities have made record cocaine seizures in 
recent months, including hauls of 10 tons and 26 tons in October 
alone. A strong government represents a threat to the cartels. "The 
goal of the cartels is to weaken institutions [and] to go about their 
illegal activities," said Roberta Jacobson, deputy assistant 
secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. "Therefore, our 
goal is to strengthen these institutions." She added: "Through this 
request by the Mexican government and cooperation of the U.S. 
government, we will be able to work together in such a way that 
criminals can't exploit our differences. This is an initiative of 
shared responsibility for shared problems." The Merida Initiative 
calls for $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance over three years, mostly in 
new equipment and services to fortify democratic institutions, with 
$500 million for Mexico and an additional $50 million for Central 
American countries in fiscal 2008. The aid package needs 
congressional approval in both countries. Mexican Ambassador Arturo 
Sarukhan said the enhanced U.S. role is key. "Between Texas and 
Arizona alone, you've got 12,000 gun shops along that border with 
Mexico. And a lot of these gun shops provide weapons that feed into 
organized crime in Mexico, so we really need the support of the 
Unites States," he said. The cartels are also attacking new targets: 
the armed forces, mainstream musicians - including three killed in 
December - and even the Catholic Church. In mid-December, two masked 
men burst into the offices of the Saltillo diocese in Coahuila state, 
northern Mexico, destroying property and holding a female employee, 
according to news reports.

The attack came after Bishop Raul Vera denounced the government's 
efforts against drug traffickers as a farce. Soldiers slain As the 
year ended, three soldiers were shot to death in a shopping mall in 
the northern city of Torreon, Coahuila. That state also borders 
Texas. Three journalists were killed in 2007, down from nine in 2006, 
when Mexico was the most dangerous place in the Americas for 
journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect 
Journalists. The debate in Congress might mirror the intensity of the 
immigration debate last summer. "Mexico won't get a free pass," one 
Republican congressional aide said. "Expect the knives to come out 
for this one." A proposed U.S. trip by Mr. Calderon in early 2008 to 
cities with large immigrant populations may inflame anti-Mexico 
sentiment on cable television and in Congress, said U.S. Rep. 
Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Intelligence 
Committee. "If I had my druthers, I would tell him to wait until this 
thing is over," said Mr. Reyes. "A visit by President Calderon could 
hurt our effort." Intense lobbying A final vote is expected in late 
February or early spring.

Intense lobbying is under way, an effort that includes Mr. Sarukhan 
making about 15 visits a week to House and Senate leaders. "I believe 
that the chances of passing it are quite good," he said. Such 
lobbying is uncharacteristic for a nation with a historic fear of 
undermining its sovereignty by accepting U.S. aid. "This package goes 
against the golden rule of Mexican diplomacy: no handouts from the 
U.S. government," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexican 
political analyst and visiting professor at Harvard University. "In 
Mexico, there's always the fear that the U.S. Congress will find a 
way to meddle into Mexican affairs and in its sovereignty. But this 
is basically the last call for Mexico. The choices are limited." 
While the proposed aid would be a big increase from the $40 million a 
year received in the past, it is also a fraction of the billions of 
dollars Mexico spends every year on law enforcement, much of it in 
the drug fight. Symbolic shift But the Merida Initiative is as much 
about a symbolic shift toward co-responsibility in the drug war as it 
is about money, officials and analysts said. "President Calderon is 
leading a frontal attack on crime, and ... the results are very 
striking in one year in Mexico," said Ms. Jacobson of the State 
Department. "This is for us one of those situations where it doesn't 
matter what the domestic political situation may be in the U.S., the 
opportunity cannot be lost. It's simply an opportunity that won't 
present itself again to change the relationship." Still, Arturo 
Yanez, who trains detectives for the Mexico City government and has 
worked in federal law enforcement, questioned whether Mr. Calderon's 
counter-narcotics strategy is really working. "Where are the results, 
the numbers ... ? Information is thin," he said. The influence of 
organized crime "is growing across Mexico. How exactly are we winning?"

Alfredo Corchado reported from Washington and Mexico City, Tim 
Connolly reported from Washington, and staff writer Laurence Iliff 
contributed from Mexico City.

WHAT'S INCLUDED The Merida initiative calls for providing Mexico with 
$1.4 billion in equipment and programs to counter the power of drug 
cartels, including:

Eight transport helicopters. Two surveillance aircraft. Night vision 
scanners. Secure communications equipment. Forensics, polygraph and 
human rights training. Programs promoting judicial reform.
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