WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Monday announced a $1.4 billion, multi-year initiative to help Mexico defeat powerful drug cartels whose turf wars have left several thousand dead and led President Felipe Calderon to deploy his military.
Dubbed the Merida Initiative for the Mexican city where President Bush and Calderon fleshed out the plan at a March meeting, the program also is designed to redefine the way the two neighbors cooperate on security issues, U.S. officials said.
The White House said it wants Congress to immediately allocate $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America. The request was tucked into a $46 billion Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental spending bill unveiled Monday.
Reaction in Congress was guarded, with members saying they were disposed to help Mexico but needed more information before committing to the initiative.
The $500 million would be the initial installment of a two- or three-year program, officials said, and would be in addition to a large but unknown sum provided by Mexico.
Mexico would get training, surveillance aircraft, Bell 412 helicopters to ferry Mexican security personnel, non-intrusive ion scanners to detect drugs, canine units and more secure communications technologies, among other materials.
"The United States will do all it can to support Mexico's efforts to break the power and impunity of drug organizations," the White House said in a statement.
Calderon has made tackling drug-fueled violence a priority, deploying troops to the struggle and continuing his predecessor's efforts to purge police forces of corrupt officers. Last year, more than 2,000 people died in drug-fueled violence.
The Bush administration estimates that 90 percent of the cocaine that hits U.S. streets enters through Mexico. Mexicans have long complained that U.S. drug consumption finances much of the violence and corruption, and that traffickers obtain guns from the United States.
The initiative adds a new dimension to the complex relationship between Mexico and the United States, which share a 2,000-mile border that's one of the busiest in the world. Nearly $1 billion worth of merchandise moves across the border each way every day, in addition to hundreds of thousands of legal and illegal crossings.
U.S. officials declined to give details of the program or how they'll ensure that shared intelligence information doesn't end up in the hands of corrupt Mexican officials, who could pass it to the cartels. But they did say that their Mexican counterparts will be carefully vetted before receiving any aid.
Bush telephoned Calderon before the White House announcement to inform him that he was making the request to Congress. News reports on the program have been around since July, but Monday's announcement made it official and confirmed the dollar amounts.
Last week, a Pentagon official said Mexico would contribute $7 billion to the plan.
The focus now shifts to Congress, where the program will face tough scrutiny, especially by Democrats.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who chairs the subcommittee of the Western Hemisphere of the Foreign Affairs Committee, complained that Congress wasn't consulted as the plan was being 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," he said.
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the same panel, supported the effort, saying it would help Mexico face "unprecedented violence."
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' international relations committee, backs the program and believes it will be approved, although some Congress members may introduce amendments to boost aid to the civilian side of the program, such as reforms of Mexico's justice system.
Both sides have been careful not to draw any parallels with a similar U.S. aid program for Colombia, known as Plan Colombia. Washington has provided nearly $6 billion to Bogota in an attempt to eradicate drug crops there, with mixed results. Violence is down, but coca production remains widespread.
Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said that while Colombia is fighting three drug-funded armed insurgencies, in Mexico the focus will be to stop the transportation of drugs and weapons.
Mexico's drug cartels don't want to overthrow the government, he noted, but to weaken it to the point where they can "do whatever they want to do."
Mindful of Mexican sensitivities over sovereignty issues, U.S. officials also have been careful not to portray the deal as a U.S. imposition on Mexico, but rather as a jointly negotiated and mutually beneficial agreement to share resources in the fight against drug trafficking — without any additional deployment of U.S. government personnel to Mexico.
"We and the Mexicans have constructed this package in such a way that we are not going to have to increase our personnel footprint in Mexico," Shannon said.