Pubdate: Sat, 21 Nov 2009
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2009 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Author: Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News


WASHINGTON - U.S. assistance to help Mexico fight drug traffickers
will probably continue beyond the allotted three years of the Merida
Initiative, with expanding cooperation but not joint law enforcement
or military operations "on Mexican soil any time soon," a senior Obama
administration official said.

The $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, an anti-drug package designed
under the Bush administration, ends next year. In an interview with
The Dallas Morning News, the senior official outlined Obama
administration priorities in supporting the government of President
Felipe Calderon in its battle with the cartels and the violence and
corruption they engender - much of it along the Texas border.

U.S. and Mexican officials are looking for ways to gradually move the
focus of their efforts from dismantling and disrupting cartels to
strengthening Mexico's weak democratic institutions and weeding out
corruption, the official said.

"Corruption remains a pretty significant concern," said the official,
speaking on condition of anonymity. "That's a serious, serious
problem. It's gotten better than it was, but we need more trusted
counterparts to mount effective operations."

The bleak assessment is shared by some Mexican officials. The battle
has "exposed Mexico's corruption and vulnerabilities and weak judicial
institutions," Joel Ortega, Mexico City's former police chief, said
recently at Columbia University in New York City.

"To win this war, we will need the full participation of society,
including the media and law enforcement," Ortega said. "We're facing
the biggest threat to our country's national security."

Since Calderon took office in December 2006, more than 14,000 people
have been killed in drug-related violence. This is the bloodiest year
yet, with more than 6,000 dead, including about 2,280 just in Ciudad
Juarez, across the border from El Paso.

The violence has prodded many Mexican families and businesses to
relocate on the U.S. side of the border, and spillover violence has
touched several Texas cities, including El Paso, Laredo and Dallas,
which have recorded killings tied to drug traffickers in Mexico.

Drug traffickers maintain a significant presence in as much as 40
percent of all Mexican territory, according to a study by Colegio de
la Frontera Norte - College of the Northern Border - in Tijuana.

Beyond Merida

In recent weeks, officials from the two countries have been meeting in
Washington and Mexico City to coordinate efforts beyond the Merida

The final installment of that package is awaiting final approval by
the U.S. Congress.

The Obama administration will seek to fund a counternarcotics package
to Mexico and Central America, though under a different name to
reflect the administration's shift in priorities, the official said.
Those priorities include focusing on training judges and law
enforcement officials and working with communities to create job
opportunities to prevent young people from seeking jobs with cartels.

U.S. aid isn't likely to surpass the $1.4 billion allotted to the
Merida Initiative since big-ticket equipment such as Black Hawk
helicopters won't be included, the official said.

As with the Merida Initiative, Mexico will probably get the bulk of
the funding, with lesser amounts going to Central American countries,
particularly Guatemala, where Mexican cartels have significant operations.

"Our focus will be citizen security and safety," the official
stressed. "It has to be."

Patience among Mexican citizens may be wearing thin, the official
said, and significant progress must be made in the months to come or
support for Calderon's campaign could unravel, hampering long-term
efforts after Calderon leaves office in 2012.

"If you don't have significant progress, it doesn't matter who the
next guy is because it won't be popular," the official said of the
anti-drug effort. "I don't know if success means top narcos going
down, or the strengthening of institutional reforms, or the economy
getting better, or a combination of those.

"But something has to get significantly better if Mexico is to
continue moving forward."

'Mask of sovereignty'

In recent informal remarks at Harvard University, Mayor Ramon Garza
Barrios of Nuevo Laredo, another Mexican city on the Texas border that
has been plagued by drug violence and corruption, applauded the Obama
administration's plan to direct more attention to municipalities.

He also said he would favor joint law enforcement or military
operations - a sensitive topic in Mexico because of sovereignty concerns.

"On the border, we don't hide behind the protective mask of
sovereignty," said Garza, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary
Party and a possible future gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas
state. "If we're talking co-responsibility, then we have to do
everything on both sides to achieve greater coordination, even joint
operations," he said, "as long as both governments agree on the terms
and everything is aboveboard."
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D