by Charles Davis
WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (IPS) – A 1.4-billion-dollar U.S. aid package to Mexico and Central American states aimed at combating drug trafficking and organised crime could backfire, the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a hearing Wednesday.
Known as the “Merida Initiative”, the majority of U.S. aid would go to Mexico in the form of surveillance aircraft, border-security equipment, and counter-drug personnel training. An initial funding request of 550 billion dollars includes 50 billion dollars to assist efforts against organised crime in other Central American countries.
“It delivers vital assistance for our partners in Mexico and Central America, who are working to break up drug cartels, and fight organised crime, and stop human trafficking,” U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters after announcing the proposal in October.
The plan is named after the Mexican city of Merida, where Bush and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderón met in March to discuss future joint anti-drug efforts.
The White House says the Merida Initiative will provide much needed support in combating drug traffickers in one of Washington’s few close allies in Latin America. Around 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States is said to pass through Mexico.
In testimony before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, U.S. State Department officials repeatedly praised the steps taken by Calderón to combat drug trafficking since he took office last December.
“The determination and commitment shown by the Calderón administration is historic,” Thomas Shannon, an assistant secretary of state, testified. Calderón has deployed upwards of 24,000 troops across Mexico to combat drug cartels, and he has increased extraditions of drug traffickers to the United States.
But Congressman Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the Committee, says the Merida Initiative is flawed. While calling increased security cooperation between the United States and Mexico “long overdue”, Lantos says the Bush administration’s emphasis on targeting the supply of drugs in Mexico may simply push the drug trade to somewhere else in the region.
He also questions the wisdom of a cornerstone of the proposal — counter-drug training for Mexican security personnel — without addressing Mexico’s longstanding battle with corruption. “Training can be dangerous because it can make corrupt forces more effective,” he said.
That view is shared by Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. She says counter-drug training efforts by the United States in the 1990s have backfired, pointing to a number of reports that members of the violent Mexican paramilitary group “Las Zetas”, said to be the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, received training at the U.S. School of Americas.
Olson also cautions U.S. officials to not make too much of President Calderón’s efforts to fight drugs and corruption. “Many a Mexican president has announced radical restructuring of police forces,” she says, “but none has yet been able to effectively change the reputation and practice of the Mexican police.”
Critics question whether aid to Mexican security forces could end up funding human rights abuses down the line. Roughly 40 percent of the aid to Mexico would go to the military and law enforcement.
Renata Rendon, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International, says “there are a lot more questions than there are answers right now” regarding what human rights guarantees will be included in the Merida Initiative. The increased use of the military to fight drugs under Calderón necessitates careful oversight, as it has caused an increased number of human rights abuses, with perpetrators often operating with impunity, Rendon told IPS.
“The Mexican security services, the military in particular, have a very poor human rights record,” says Daniel Wilkinson, the deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “It would be a mistake to give them a blank check” without including strong human rights guarantees, he told IPS.
The Bush administration has attempted to answer critics by stressing its commitment to improving Mexico’s legal system. “The Merida Initiative, if approved, will include various efforts to improve crime prevention, modernise the Mexican police force, and provide institution building and the rule of law,” David Johnson, an assistant secretary of state, told Congress.
But Laura Carlsen, program director of the Americas Programme at the Centre for International Policy, is wary of the proposal, which she dubs “Plan Mexico”, a reference to U.S. anti-drug efforts in Colombia. She questions the wisdom of fighting drug trafficking with military aid, arguing that the military approach hasn’t worked at stemming the flow of illicit drugs elsewhere.
Carlsen also says the proposal uses the guise of the war on drugs to promote a long sought after goal of Washington: a unified approach to security between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “The Bush administration has attempted to push its Northern American trade partners into a common front that would assume shared responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorist threats and bolstering U.S. global hegemony in the region,” she says.
That view seemed to be supported on Wednesday by the testimony of U.S. State Department official Thomas Shannon. “The Merida Initiative represents an effort to integrate security programmes from the Andes… up to the southwest border of the United States,” he told Congress, calling the U.S.-backed effort to fight drugs “a hemispheric assault”.
Before it can take effect, the Merida Initiative must first be approved by the U.S. Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has given the Merida Initiative her tacit support, but many lawmakers have expressed anger with the Bush administration for announcing the proposal without consulting them first.
Continuing clashes between Congress and the White House over funding for the Iraq war and a number of domestic programmes could also threaten to stall funding.