Pubdate: Sun, 05 Apr 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, and Steve Fainaru


Mexicans Seek 'True Solidarity'

MEXICO CITY -- After promising $1.4 billion last year under a landmark
initiative to help fight drug trafficking in Mexico, the U.S.
government has spent almost none of the money, fanning criticism on
both sides of the border that the United States is failing to respond
quickly to the deepening crisis.

In June, Congress appropriated $400 million to assist Mexico under the
first installment of the Merida Initiative, which was signed into law
by President George W. Bush. The three-year aid package was passed as
an emergency measure because of deteriorating security in Mexico. In
December, the State Department announced that $197 million had been

But a closer examination shows that just two small projects under
Merida -- the delivery of high-speed computer servers in December and
an arms-trafficking workshop attended by senior U.S. officials at a
Mexican resort last week -- have been completed.

U.S. officials acknowledged that about $7 million from the aid package
has been spent -- mostly on administration and planning. The most
critical items, a $50 million surveillance plane and five
rapid-response helicopters, may take as much as two years to deliver.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently complained about the delays
to visiting U.S. congressional delegations, American officials said.
Calderon negotiated the aid package shortly after taking office in
December 2006. He and Bush announced the agreement in October 2007,
calling Merida a symbol of the two nations' shared responsibility for
the drug problem.

Calderon has since deployed 45,000 troops to fight drug traffickers.
He also has launched the most ambitious law enforcement reforms in
Mexico's history, increasing his security budget by nearly 100
percent. More than 10,100 Mexicans have died over the past three years
in drug violence fueled in part by the U.S. drug market and illegal
weapons smuggled south.

The delays have fed criticism among Mexicans already skeptical of the
U.S. commitment to the drug war. Cesar Duarte, president of Mexico's
Chamber of Deputies, said the Merida Initiative has come to symbolize
Mexico's unequal relationship with the United States.

"The Merida plan has been overly publicized but with very little
actual effect for the magnitude of problems that we are facing,"
Duarte said in an interview. "We are fighting in the streets, Mexicans
killing Mexicans, using arms that were illegally exported from the
United States, and it is our soldiers who are putting themselves in
the line of fire to stop the flow of drugs. What we need is not some
overly publicized Merida plan. We need true solidarity."

Antonio O. Garza Jr., who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from
2002 to 2009, said he fears that the spirit of cooperation forged
under Merida is slipping away. He said the delays have raised
suspicions among Mexicans that the U.S. government, while praising
Calderon as a courageous crime-fighter, is leaving him hanging out to

"You bet I'm concerned," Garza said. "We're saying all the right
things. But attaboys, however genuine, aren't the same as being there
for Calderon with money, marbles and chalk."

American officials attributed the delays to cumbersome U.S. government
contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is
needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an
aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies.

The Merida Initiative is 10 times as large as any previous American
anti-drug assistance package to Mexico. It may require a staff of up
to 50 people at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to administer. U.S.
officials said they want to ensure that safeguards are in place so the
money is accounted for and programs are monitored.

"We are moving as fast as we can, but we also have to do this right,"
said Roberta S. Jacobson, who, as deputy assistant secretary for
Western Hemisphere affairs, helped negotiate the Merida Initiative.
"We are creating a $1 billion program essentially from scratch, and if
we try and move faster than our own procedures -- and those of Mexico
- -- can manage, we risk the careful oversight and monitoring that we
and Congress expect."

Jacobson and others said they expected the assistance to flow more
quickly over the next few months, as requirements are met and staffing
is completed. The government has to borrow personnel from other U.S.
embassies to help the embassy in Mexico City ramp up.

The assistance package was born in closed-door meetings between Bush
and Calderon in the Yucatan capital of Merida in March 2007. Details
were kept secret, but when the two governments announced the agreement
Oct. 22, 2007, Garza called it "the single most aggressive undertaking
ever to combat Mexican drug cartels."

Mexico is to receive about $116.5 million in foreign military
financing under the first installment of Merida. Only four countries
- -- Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan -- receive more under the State
Department program, according to department figures.

Merida has at its centerpiece the transfer of sophisticated technology
to detect weapons, bulk cash and drugs; surveillance and
intelligence-gathering packages; training programs for police and
prison guards; as well as big-ticket aviation hardware.

A close adviser to Calderon on the drug war said: "The criminal
organizations can buy tons and tons of night-vision goggles and
weapons and satellite communications equipment on the black market. I
need to get the U.S. Congress to provide me with that same equipment
to tackle these guys."

The most expensive items are aircraft: $50 million for one CASA CN-235
plane for the Mexican navy, similar to the medium-range surveillance
aircraft used by the U.S. Coast Guard, and $65 million for five Bell
412 helicopters, twin-engine workhorses that are employed by companies
and militaries around the world.

The Mexicans see the helicopters as vital, allowing authorities to
reach high-value targets anywhere in the country within 90 minutes.
The Bell 412 can travel nonstop for nearly 500 miles and can reach
speeds of up to 150 miles an hour.

The Mexican government was initially told that it would receive eight
new helicopters. After Congress cut $100 million from the initial Bush
proposal, the number was reduced to five.

Defense Department procurement officials later informed the State
Department that by the time all the legal hurdles were met, the
helicopters would have to be purchased at 2010 prices, and that the
budget would support only three, said a U.S. official familiar with
the negotiations.

Mexican officials were furious, according to the official, who spoke
on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue
to the bilateral relationship. The State Department has since worked
to expedite the procedures for foreign military assistance. U.S.
officials are hopeful that Mexico will receive five helicopters by the
end of this year, but the State Department and the Pentagon have given
a timetable of 18 to 24 months after the contract is signed. The
contract with Bell cannot be negotiated until a 30-day congressional
notification period expires in mid-April.

"It's pretty disappointing to me that we see the urgency, the bodies
being decapitated, and we say, 'We'll get the helicopters to you in 24
months,' " said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House
Appropriations state, foreign operations and related programs
subcommittee, in a hearing two weeks ago. "If we're really helping
them and we're pouring in all this money, where's the product?"

"You could send down a dozen Black Hawk helicopters, complete with
training teams, in a matter of a few months," said Barry McCaffrey, a
retired Army general and director of national drug policy in the
Clinton administration. "What are we doing? They're in trouble.
They're serious. This is a national priority, and we ought to take it

U.S. officials say that the Mexican government shares responsibility
for the delay on the helicopters. The Mexican government changed the
specifications it wanted and slowed the procurement process further by
waiting four months before submitting a formal letter requesting the

Merida also includes $55 million for scanners and X-ray vans for the
federal police and customs. The inspection equipment would be used to
find drugs, arms and cash in operations across Mexico and at 16 of the
country's 48 ports of entry, which include airports, seaports and
border crossings.

David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of state for international
narcotics and law enforcement affairs, which is leading implementation
of the Merida Initiative, recently told Congress that specifications
for this detection equipment are still being completed, after which
the contracting process would begin. "We anticipate this equipment
will be on the ground around September," he said. "It's highly
technical gadgetry. You have to build it from scratch."

Johnson told Congress, "We do not believe that these delays have
impacted negatively on Mexico's counter-narcotics efforts."

One of the first projects to roll out under Merida was a bilateral
arms-trafficking workshop at the Camino Real resort hotel in
Cuernavaca last week. The event garnered wide media attention but no
announcements of new joint crime-fighting projects. One U.S. official
said about $20,000 in American taxpayer money was spent to host the

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate
contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin