The White House is hoping Congress will pass the Bush administration’s request for an initial $550 million for narcotics enforcement in Mexico and Central America before the fast-approaching holiday recess. The proposed aid package, known as the “Merida Initiative,” has been hailed by the Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón as “a new paradigm” of bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs and terrorism. Some 40% of the $550 million is slated to pay for eight new helicopters and two new airplanes for Mexico. The funds are attached to a $50 billion supplemental military funding package the administration is seeking to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.
Noting that some 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States transits Mexico, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the State Department’s Assistant Secretary overseeing the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told lawmakers at a Nov. 14 hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that there has been a dramatic spike in drug cartel activities in Mexico and Central America over the past ten years. Shannon said cartel operatives have infiltrated municipal and state law enforcement in the region, “substantially weakening these governments’ ability to maintain public security and expand the rule of law.”
But lawmakers expressed dissent at what they called the secretive process behind the aid program. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, said it is “disturbing that the [Bush] administration did not involve its coequal branch of government, the United States Congress, in developing this initiative.”
“We first learned of the initiative from the media,” protested Lantos, adding that the “hope that the legendary corruption in the Mexican police apparatus will somehow diminish or disappear as a result of this proposal strikes me as also naive.”
Shannon countered that the Merida Initiative was the result of a multilateral foreign policy effort sparked by President Bush’s visit to Latin America in the spring. “The impetus for the Merida Initiative came out of [Bush’s] March trip to the region; particularly his visits to Guatemala and Mexico, where security concerns dominated the conversations with [Guatemalan] President Berger and President Calderón,” he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged lawmakers to reject the proposal unless conditions are included to address rights’ abuses by Mexican security forces. HRW cited such reports as a case in 2006, when soldiers in Coahuila state beat seven municipal police and sexually abused 14 women.
Some elements of the Mexican military have also taken the US to task for failing to control the flow of guns into Mexico. In an interview with Reuters, Gen. Javier del Real Magallanes, head of the army drug operation for northeastern Mexico, said: “If there are no weapons, there’s no violence. These arms aren’t from Mexico; they’re from the other side.” He added that more surveillance and detection equipment was necessary, but would not be sufficient. “We lack technology, technology is expensive. We also need the United States to do what it should with respect to arms trafficking… We have to put a brake on the sale of arms,” said the general, whose jurisdiction covers the states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosi.
A Mexican government study estimates that some 2,000 guns enter Mexico daily from the US. Garen Wintemute, a professor at UC Davis and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, reproached the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF): “Unfortunately, I don’t think that the ATF does an effective job of regulating the firearm industry. It’s clearly not their fault. There are very, very strict limits set on what they’re allowed to do.” There is no registry of gun sales in the US, making the tracing of arms a difficult task. (Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Dec. 14; World Politics Review, Dec. 13)