Alarmed by rising threats to Mexican law and order from ever-more-brazen drug lords, the Bush administration is quietly negotiating a counternarcotics aid package with the Mexican government that would increase US involvement in a drug war south of the border.
The fact that Mexico – which has historically been averse to any assistance from the US that could be construed as a breach of its sovereignty – is seeking the increased aid shows how serious a threat President Felipe Calderón sees drug gangs posing to his country.
The aid package could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars and include everything from Blackhawk helicopters and other sophisticated military equipment to increased training and surveillance capabilities. The discussions are underway as Mexico confronts one of the bloodiest periods in more than two decades of drug lords building and consolidating power. Since 2006, Mexico has suffered 3,000 drug-related killings as the two most-feared drug gangs – the Sinaloa and Gulf – have battled for turf, lucrative transport routes, and political influence.
Upon taking office in December, Mr. Calderón wasted no time, signaling his will to confront gangs by sending thousands of troops into states where Mexico's top six gangs operate. He also used diplomatic channels to issue a hushed but urgent plea for assistance from the US – the primary market for Colombian cocaine transported through Mexico.
"It's a huge difference that Calderón is asking for assistance, something [former President Vicente] Fox never did," says Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "They have to be swallowing hard to even be asking the US for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid."
A sensitive issue
Officials from both countries are reluctant to discuss details of the aid package, given Mexican sensitivities and the questions sure to arise in the US Congress over human-rights abuses in Mexico and the infiltration of drug gangs into Mexican police and military. But President Bush and Calderón are expected to take up the issue when they meet in two weeks at a NAFTA summit in Canada.
Calderón has not been shy about publicly airing what he sees as the US role as a drug-consuming country in Mexico's violence, and therefore its responsibility to help address the problem. But the scope of the package has led to it being dubbed "Plan Mexico" in some congressional circles – a comparison to the multi-billion-dollar "Plan Colombia" begun under President Bill Clinton to help Colombia battle an entrenched "narcoguerrilla" and wean the rural economy off of cultivation of the coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine.
Comparing Mexico's case with Colombia's is misleading, analysts say, in part because Mexico is guarded about even a suggestion of US military intervention.
"Mexico prohibits US military training in the country, and that's not about to change," says Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico issues at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Currently Mexico receives about $40 million a year in counternarcotics assistance from the US, which puts it well below Colombia and even Peru – a country that, like Colombia, is a producer of coca. Some Mexican soldiers do receive training in the US, and the FBI trains and works with police in Mexico. But unlike in Colombia, where the US Army and Marines have served training and advisory roles, no one is discussing the idea of putting American military personnel on Mexican soil.
Mexico is battling a handful of powerful drug lords – who in turn are fighting a war of attrition against one another – not a domestic guerrilla group that has entered the drug trade as a way to make money. The latter has been the case with Colombia's fight against the trafficking operations of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC.
In Mexico, "it's not the FARC, it's Pablo Escobar," says Mr. Isacson, referring to the storied Colombian cocaine king killed in 1993. "And that suggests a very different kind of aid package."
Plan Colombia money also helps rural families displaced by decades of fighting and goes toward "illicit crop eradication" and alternative crop development – issues that are either nonexistent or (in the case of eradication) less important in Mexico.
Mexico's increased aid is expected instead to buy equipment to improve the country's monitoring of its air space, systems for electronic surveillance, high-powered weapons, and professional training for Mexican security forces, say officials from the two countries
One objective is to "level the playing field" for Mexican security officers who confront opponents in drug gangs – some of whom are better armed and trained than the officers. (Indeed, some members of the Gulf cartel's notorious enforcement arm, the Zetas, are former Mexican military personnel who received US training.)
Cause for concern
But the planned aid increase raises some troubling questions, say analysts from both sides of the border. They include:
•To what extent will it deepen the involvement of Mexico's military in a battle with domestic crime gangs?
•How much will it focus on cleaning up and professionalizing the Mexican police, considered in Mexico to be corrupt?
•What emphasis will be put on reinforcing the rule of law by boosting aid to Mexico's judicial system and civil-society organizations focused on human rights?
•To what extent does increased US involvement play into an extension of the war on terror south of the border and into Central America?
"Unless a large part of any package deals with getting institutions like the police and the judicial system ... back into the game, you'll open the door to the military being the answer in all cases of crime and law enforcement," says Isacson.
Some analysts say the US must develop a regional strategy against drug-trafficking if it hopes to match the multinational fluidity of the drug cartels. Europol could provide a "useful template" for a regional antidrug effort, writes Roger Noriega, Mr. Bush's former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, in a commentary for the American Enterprise Institute published last week.
While that may be a long-term goal, Mr. Noriega says the US should act quickly to assist Mexico in its drug war and take advantage of Calderón's request for help. Leaving the matter to the appropriations process would mean boosting aid perhaps a year from now, he notes, adding that the opportunity presented by Calderón – and the ongoing threat to US security from international drug trafficking – warrants Bush seeking "urgent supplemental funds" this fall. "The opportunity to build this alliance against a deadly foe may not come again," he adds.