President Bush Tuesday formally requested $550 million from Congress for anti-drug assistance to Mexico and Central America next year. The funding request is only the first installment in a two- or three-year aid package that is expected to total some $1.4 billion. The funding was included in the president's latest supplemental funding bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, this one's overall tag set at $46 billion.
"It delivers vital assistance for our partners in Mexico and Central America who are working to break up drug cartels, and fight organized crime, and stop human trafficking," Bush said at the White House, shortly after calling Mexican President Felipe CalderÃ³n.
"While I look forward to reviewing the counter-narcotics plan for Mexico and Central America, Congress was not consulted as the plan was developed. This is not a good way to kick off such an important effort to fight the increase in narco-trafficking and violence in the region," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, which held a hearing on the proposal Thursday. "I hope that the administration will be more forthcoming with members of Congress now that they have announced the plan," he added tartly.
The anti-drug package faces the additional burden of being part of the appropriation for the highly unpopular war in Iraq. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has signaled that the entire appropriations bill could have a tough time getting past the House. But then again, the House Democratic leadership has said that before, and the war continues to be funded.
Mexico is the leading producer of marijuana and methamphetamines imported into the US to feed insatiable North American markets. Along with Colombia, it produces most of the heroin consumed in the US. And it is the primary conduit for South American cocaine destined for the US.
Mexico is also the scene of a long-running, seemingly ever-escalating state of war among competing drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- over control of the lucrative, multi-billion dollar a year business, as well as between the cartels and the Mexican state. More than 2,100 people, including around 200 law enforcement and military personnel, have died in Mexico's drug war so far this year, making 2007 on pace to be the bloodiest year yet.
Mexican President Felipe CalderÃ³n has won praise from US drug fighters for acting aggressively against the cartels since he took power in December. Since then, he has sent some 25,000 army troops into cities like Tijuana, MazatlÃ¡n, and Acapulco, as well as key drug-growing states. While the government claims mounting arrests and seizures, the drugs continue to flow and so does the blood. Calderon's government has announced it is preparing to spend $7 billion to prosecute the drug war in addition to the US offer of assistance.
In Central America, the problems are similar, although of smaller scale. While Mexico is plagued by the hyper-macho violence of groups like the Zetas, a unit of former elite anti-drug fighters who went over to the other side and who have engaged in spectacular, horrific exemplary killings, Central America faces the gangs, groups such as Mara Salvatrucha, originally composed of the children of Salvadoran refugees in the US who learned gangster ways up north before returning to their homelands to apply their newfound skills.
Mexico will get 90% of the US package, some $500 million, while $50 million will go to Central American countries. The Mexico aid package, which has been under negotiation between US and Mexican officials for months, will include funds for Mexican military helicopters, ships, surveillance aircraft, drug-sniffing dogs, and telecommunications equipment. It would also pay for training Mexican police and troops involved in intercepting drug shipments en route to the United States. But unlike Plan Colombia, the multi-year, multi-billion anti-drug cum counterinsurgency program to which it is often compared, the package does not call for additional US military personnel or contractors to work in Mexico.
Reaction from Latin America and drug policy analysts in Washington ranged from the critical to the concerned. "At first glance, a lot of this just looks like a waste of money," said Adam Isaacson, program director at the Center for International Policy. "There's about $200 million for boats and helicopters for interdiction. That's better than spending money on spraying crops, but it's really just a cat and mouse game. What we really need is demand reduction."
"The US has a moral obligation to help Mexico deal with drug violence because of US drug policies and use," said Maureen Meyer, Associate for Mexico and Central America for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "But we need to be clear that while this package may have a positive short-term impact on drug trafficking and violence in Mexico, there should be no expectations that it will stem the flow of drugs into the United States."
"This cooperation package reflects the Bush Administration's growing recognition of the United States' shared responsibility for drug trafficking and drug-related violence in Mexico," said WOLA's executive director, Joy Olson. "Addressing this problem is not something that it should face alone. But cooperation is a two-way street," Olson pointed out. "Although the package mentions an unspecified amount of money to reduce drug consumption in Mexico, it has not been accompanied by any new major federal initiative to cut drug demand in the United States."
"One of the reasons we're in this mess is because our politicians thought it was a great idea to help foreign governments to fight the drug war alongside us, so they trained elite Mexican units in counter-narcotics two decades ago," cautioned Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"The problem is they had no way of guaranteeing the loyalty of the troops they trained and they forgot that drug prohibition is an equal opportunity corruptor," Tree continued. "An elite US-trained unit called the Zetas eventually switched sides and became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. When you hear of machine gun and bazooka battles in Nuevo Laredo, that's our Frankestein coming back to haunt us. Now the Bush Administration -- never one to learn from history -- wants to repeat the calamity."
"President Bush's proposed 'surge' in the war on drugs will cost taxpayer's too much, won't work, and may increase violence in both Mexico and the United States," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Supply-side strategies have failed for cocaine, heroin, marijuana and virtually every drug to which they have been applied (including alcohol during Prohibition). Fundamental economic principles demonstrate why: as long as a strong demand for drugs exists, there will be a supply to meet it. Even if successful, Bush's Mexico plan would merely succeed in making cocaine more valuable, boosting profits for major drug cartels and encouraging more criminal elements to enter the lucrative cocaine market."
Such concerns and critiques were echoed south of the border. "More helicopters won't make a difference because you are only dealing with the armed side of the cartels. You've got to go after their finances and find out where their banks accounts are. That is the way to weaken them," said Ernesto Mendieta, a security advisor and former Mexican anti-drugs prosecutor. "Tracking that money is time consuming and doesn't make headline news, but it has to be done," Mendieta told Reuters.
"The US-Mexican drug plan is not the magic solution. It will help, but you need intelligence, people on the inside, and money alone can't buy that," Jorge Chabat at Mexico's CIDE think-tank, told the same agency.
But that kind of talk make's CIP's Isaacson a bit nervous. "We're worried about the intelligence and surveillance aspects of this," he said. "Who will be getting this? How are they trained? How infiltrated by the traffickers are these agencies? What are their human rights records? We have a lot of concerns about this aspect of the package," he said.
WOLA, too, had concerns, especially about the lack of details on some aspects of the plan. The organization wants to ensure that the aid package not end up subverting democracy in the region. "If funds are sent directly to the receiving countries' military forces, the plan could undermine civilian control of the armed forces and weaken efforts to strengthen civilian public security institutions," the group noted.
Now, the measure goes to Congress, where the first hearings have already gotten underway. At least one observer, CIP's Isaacson, thinks it will make it through the process. "This Plan Mexico stuff is going to get very carefully scrutinized," he said. "It will pass, although it may be radically altered in the process," he said.
But it won't make much difference, he suggested. "Overlying all of this is the fact that there is a whole lot of money to be made, and it's the demand from our drug-using population that makes this an attractive career path for people in Mexico."