U.S. finalizing aid for Mexico's drug war

But Mexican concerns about the plan's human rights conditions could scuttle it.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Congress is poised to approve a multibillion-dollar antinarcotics-assistance program for Mexico – but with human rights conditions attached that could ultimately lead the Mexican government to reject the whole package.

The House and Senate this week began the process of reconciling their two versions of a White House plan to provide $1.4 billion over three years in military hardware, surveillance equipment, training, and judicial assistance to further Mexico's intensifying war with its notorious drug cartels. The proposal also includes antidrug funding for some Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Both houses trimmed the White House request a bit, though leaving it largely intact while adding human rights conditions – such as a Senate insistence on civilian judicial oversight of cases of abuse perpetrated by the military.

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Yet while human rights and judicial-transparency advocates say that the strings Congress has so far attached are the bare minimum for such a large new commitment, some Mexican officials are suggesting their country might prefer to continue a violent war alone rather than accept American conditions.

The brouhaha is conjuring up Mexico's long-held sensitivities over US intervention and interference in what it considers its sovereign affairs.

But many experts say Mexico could not have been surprised by what are by now typical conditions for such aid programs.

"The Mexican government can't expect a major military program is going to be approved without some kind of human rights conditions on it," says Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, a policy advocate organization based in Washington.

Defending the conditions during Senate debate of the program, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont quipped that the new assistance – a more-than fivefold increase in aid to Mexico – is "a partnership, not a giveaway."

But Mexico's interior secretary, Juan Camilo Mourino, this week said that the conditions were "unacceptable." The White House, meanwhile, sided with the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón: White House drug czar John Walters on Tuesday accused Congress of "sabotaging" the counternarcotics initiative, saying that it was "misguided" to "ask another country in order to be a partner to do things that are unconstitutional in a democratic regime."

The congressional conditions are also causing the southern neighbors to jab back. In a recent radio interview, the man in charge of Mexico's war with the drug lords, deputy attorney general José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, quipped that both countries might be better off if the United States kept its money and used it to stem the flow south across the border of the high-powered weapons that the gangs prefer.

No one is questioning that Mexico is fighting the drug cartels – which transport 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the US – with new zeal. President Calderón has assigned 25,000 soldiers and police to fighting the gangs, which in many cases are better armed (and remunerated) than their government counterparts.

As of May, more than 1,400 deaths had been tallied in Mexico's drug war this year – about a 50 percent hike over last year, according to Mexico's attorney general.

It was this newfound Mexican dedication to fighting the cartels that led President Bush to unveil the new aid package with Calderón last year in the Mexican city of Mérida – an act that prompted the White House to call the assistance the "Mérida initiative."

But some Latin America and human rights experts dubbed the huge new package, with its emphasis on military hardware like helicopters, "Plan Mexico" – in reference to the decade-old, multibillion-dollar "Plan Colombia" initiated under President Clinton. That nickname rubbed Mexico the wrong way.

It was inevitable, some analysts say, that Mexico's historical preoccupation with US interference would arise with a US assistance package of this magnitude, says Adam Isaacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Still, Mr. Isaacson believes that in the end, the aid package will be approved – and accepted by Mexico – for two reasons. First, Mexico needs the modernized equipment and training that the package offers, he says.

But the money, he says, also allows the US to do something about the destabilizing violence next door without really taking on the causes of that violence at home. Isaacson says, "It's almost like, rather than taking on some powerful constituencies here, it's easier to offer a grab bag of assistance for the Mexicans to deal with the problem over there."

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