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October 15, 2007 - Austin American-Statesman (TX)

U.S. Plan For Drug War Has Some In Mexico Worried

Critics of $1.4 Billion Aid Proposal Fear the Money Will Bring Mexico's Drug-Fighting Strategy Under American Control

By Jeremy Schwartz, Mexico City Bureau

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MEXICO CITY -- A proposed massive American aid package to fight violent drug cartels has sparked a collective bout of hand-wringing in Mexico, where anything hinting at U.S. intervention has long been viewed with suspicion.

For months, Mexico has been consumed with news of the proposed package, although little has been publicly revealed besides its price tag: a reported $1.4 billion over two years, on par with what Colombia receives as part of its controversial drug-eradication program.

Mexico, which has had more than 2,000 drug-related slayings this year, might be expected to welcome such a bounty with open arms. But the nations' mutual history, which includes the loss of a third of Mexico's territory to the United States, makes any U.S. involvement in Mexico a touchy subject.

President Felipe Calderon's government has pursued American assistance, but opposition politicians have argued that the aid package would violate Mexico's sovereignty. Polls show that most Mexicans oppose the help.

Concern has centered not on the aid itself, which probably will be used to pay for military and law enforcement training and equipment such as helicopters, but on what might accompany it.

Analysts on both sides of the border say the aid most likely will come with some level of oversight from the U.S. Congress, which may be hard for Mexican agencies, unaccustomed to a public accounting of any kind, to swallow.

"There will be an enormous amount of scrutiny and a lot of questions on how the money is used and how effective Mexico's anti-narcotic strategy is," said Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexico City analyst and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support. "That will always be an uncomfortable factor."

Presidents Bush and Calderon are expected to announce details of the plan in two or three weeks, when the proposals are expected to be sent to the nations' respective congresses for approval.

American officials have praised Mexico's recent drug-fighting efforts, saying military crackdowns on the cartels have disrupted the flow of drugs into the United States.

"Calderon has done a phenomenal job in addressing the cartels and criminal gangs," said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, who has pushed for the aid package. "I think they warrant and deserve our assistance."

Mexico's complicated relationship with the United States causes Mexican officials to chafe at comparisons to Plan Colombia, as the Colombian aid package is known, and to lecture reporters who have baptized the proposed aid package "Plan Mexico."

Analysts also worry that the aid may come with increased pressure to allow American agents to carry weapons and pursue drug traffickers on Mexican soil, long a goal of U.S. law enforcement.

Mexican and U.S. officials have insisted that the package will not include an American military presence in Mexico, as exists in Colombia.

Calderon's political opponents have railed against the package, some to make political hay, others because they fear the money will bring the nation's drug-fighting strategy under American control.

"Mexico is a country that can afford to pay the cost of the plan," Manuel Camacho Solis, a top official in the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, wrote recently in a newspaper column. "It represents just a small proportion of public and oil-related income. On the other hand, accepting the donation puts us completely in the hands of the United States government."

Leftists in Mexico have also expressed concern that the aid package could be used to go after guerrilla groups and other political opponents of the government.

Meanwhile, there is concern on both sides of the border about the Mexican military's human rights record and its effectiveness in fighting the drug cartels.

While the military's involvement was initially meant to be temporary, the aid plan could give it a permanent role. According to published reports, 40 percent of the money in the aid package would go to the military, and the rest would go to police agencies.

Calderon's decision after taking office late last year to step up the military's involvement in drug enforcement initially caused an unprecedented surge in violence. Mexico averaged almost 100 drug-related killings a week earlier this year. Dozens of police and public officials were gunned down.

The violence decreased over the summer as the nation's two major cartels reportedly entered into a truce. Supporters called the truce, which proved short-lived, proof that the military pressure worked.

Critics said the violence had more to do with the internal workings of the cartels than with anything that Calderon's government did. Recently, violence has spiked again.

Human rights groups say the military has committed a host of atrocities during its battle with drug traffickers. Mexico's human rights commissioner has recommended sending the military back to its barracks, citing numerous abuses.

For example, four soldiers were sentenced in connection with the rape of 14 women in the border state of Coahuila in July 2006, and a family of five was gunned down as they drove through a military checkpoint in Sinaloa in June. Seven soldiers involved in the incident later tested positive for marijuana and cocaine.

"We could be entering a spiral in which we strengthen the presence of the military," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a national security expert. "Time will tell if there are more pros than cons with this plan."

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