WASHINGTON — Mexican President Felipe Calderon, locked in a bloody confrontation with drug cartels, is negotiating a massive counter-drug aid package with the Bush administration worth hundreds of millions of dollars, several officials say.
Officials on both sides are working out the details of a package that resembles a U.S. aid plan for Colombia. The talks have been taking place quietly for several months and will be a central item on the agenda when President Bush and Calderon are expected to meet in Quebec Aug. 20-21.
Mexican officials have been reluctant to go public with the discussions, mindful of anti-U.S. sentiments harbored by many Mexicans. But 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 McClatchy Newspapers.
Most of the 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 counter-narcotics 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 methamphetamine.
This traffic has made Mexican cartels enormously rich and powerful. One recent cash seizure netted $206 million.
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 an aid package 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.”
“Mexico’s obviously a sovereign nation,” Bush said, “and if (Calderon) so chooses, like he has, will lay out an agenda where the United States can be a constructive partner.”
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 the 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 has emerged 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.
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 requests for comment. A delegation led by Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora was in Washington this week for discussions.
Several U.S. agencies are involved in setting the timeframe and scope of the program, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council.
The aid package under consideration inevitably will spark comparisons to the similar program under way with Colombia since 2000. Under that program, the U.S. government has poured more than $5 billion to combat armed groups as well as to 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.
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 the 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 more likely will 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.
There are similarities between Colombia and Mexico — both are ruled by popular conservative politicians — but also important differences that need to be taken into account, Peschard-Sverdrup 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,” he said.