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July 28, 2007 - Miami Herald (FL)

U.S., Mexico Near Deal on Drug War Aid

By Pablo Bachelet

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, locked in a bloody confrontation with drug cartels, is negotiating a counter-drug aid package with the Bush administration worth hundreds of millions of dollars, say several U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.

Officials on both sides are working out the details of a package that resembles a similar plan for Colombia. The talks have been taking place quietly for several months and will be a central item on the agenda Aug. 20-21 when President Bush and Calderon are expected to meet in Quebec.

Mexican officials have been reluctant to go public with the discussions, mindful of the anti-U.S. sentiments harbored by many Mexicans. The conservative Calderon believes he has little choice but to enlist U.S. help given the cross-border nature of drug trafficking and the ruthlessness of Mexico's drug gangs, officials and observers told The Miami Herald.

Most of the American officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic and because the details of the plan could change in coming weeks. In public, U.S. officials say little other than to acknowledge the discussions.

''We're working very closely with the Mexicans on counternarcotics on a variety of fronts and at all levels of government,'' said National Security Council spokeswoman Katherine Starr. ``Presidents Bush and Calderon look forward to discussing this and other issues when they meet in Canada in August.''

But officials view the talks as a bold initiative by Calderon that underscores his resolve to tame drug-related violence -- most of it between rival cartels -- that has cost the lives of 3,000 Mexicans in the past year alone and forced the intervention of 20,000 federal troops.

''I think the Mexicans realize it's going to get worse before it gets better,'' said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and now with the American Enterprise Institute think-tank. ``They can't do this alone and should not have to do this alone.''

One problem in the talks is that U.S. law enforcement agencies are wary of sharing crucial intelligence information with their Mexican counterparts, viewed as splintered and infiltrated by drug gangs. Noriega says such prejudices ought to be set aside and the two countries should carry out joint operations ``seamlessly integrated across the border.''

The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States comes in from Mexico, which also supplies the United States with large quantities of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines.

This traffic has made Mexican cartels enormously rich and powerful. One recent cash seizure netted $206 million.

Far-Reaching Issue

For Washington, the stakes in Calderon's anti-drug push go beyond law and order issues.

''If Calderon loses this battle,'' says Noriega, ``then there will be no wall high enough to keep out Mexicans who are displaced by violence and by the security threat that undermines Mexico's growth.''

Bush and Calderon hinted at the aid package under negotiation when they met in Merida, Mexico, on March 14. Bush praised Calderon for his tough stand against organized crime and drugs and recognized that as a consumer nation, ``the United States has a responsibility in the fight against drugs.''

People familiar with the talks say Mexico drew up a list that included equipment, training and technology, including Black Hawk helicopters, which are difficult to come by given U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but are considered the transport of choice for security forces.

The price tag on the more ambitious aspiration is $1.2 billion, but a more modest proposal is emerging in recent weeks in the area of $700 million, said one person familiar with the talks.

It is not clear how the administration will request the funds from Congress, since the foreign operations spending bill for the coming year already has been approved by the House. Mexican lawmakers have also expressed concerns over the package.

Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, was described by officials as a key actor in the talks. The Mexican Embassy did not respond to Miami Herald requests for comment. A delegation led by Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora was in Washington this week for discussions.

The aid package under consideration inevitably will spark comparisons to the program underway with Colombia since 2000. Under it, the United States has poured in more than $5 billion to combat armed groups as well as eradicate coca and heroin crops.

Colombian authorities praise the program for helping reduce violence there, though the country continues to produce vast quantities of cocaine.

Sensitive Subject

Mexican officials bristle at any comparisons with the Colombian operation, which they view as too ambitious and an infringement on Colombian sovereignty, given the heavy scrutiny by U.S. Congress and direct involvement of U.S. personnel and equipment.

''Any type of a package called Plan Mexico,'' said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ``would be dead on arrival.''

The Mexico package will more likely be cast as an effort to improve Mexico's judicial system and its security forces. ''The U.S. can play a role in bolstering that reform process,'' he said.

Colombia's security forces were eager to engage with their U.S. counterparts, while the Mexicans, for historic reasons, are more distant.

''What we're really talking about is helping strengthen Mexico's rule of law,'' said Peschard-Sverdrup.

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