AFL-CIO opposes aid package for Mexico

WASHINGTON — A major U.S. counter-drug aid package for Mexico is under attack by U.S. organized labor, which says Congress should reject the initiative unless tough human rights conditions are included, according to a letter revealed Friday.

The opposition by the AFL-CIO and other labor groups adds another obstacle to a three-year, $1.4 billion program for Mexico known as the Merida Initiative. It already faces cutbacks for budgetary reasons and objections by human rights groups, which say that Mexican security forces have a history of abuses.

In an April 30 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee members Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and William Delahunt, D-Mass., the AFL-CIO said that fighting drug trafficking is "an important and legitimate foreign policy objective."

But the group cited labor abuses in Mexico and considered the strategy "ineffective." Providing eight military helicopters — meant to quickly move security forces to remote places where drug gangs operate — was "of questionable value," the letter said.

This marks the second blow to the Merida Initiative in recent days. House of Representatives appropriators are expected to cut the first part of the Merida funding from $500 million to less than $300 million.

Merida Initiative supporter Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing Thursday that he was "disappointed" at the funding cut and would attempt to overturn the decision.

But with U.S. unions now firmly opposed, passing Merida will become even harder, congressional aides acknowledge. Key senators are also wary.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a key appropriator, to discuss the Mexico drug trafficking package, a congressional aide said.

Opposition by the AFL-CIO to a free-trade agreement with Colombia has been a key factor in the delay in securing its congressional ratification.

The AFL-CIO letter, signed by its director of the international department, Barbara Shailor, said that any Merida funding must "at minimum" set a "strong program of human rights certification." Mexico would have to show it was making advances resolving alleged abuses, especially against union members.

A similar human rights certification program exists under Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar aid program for Colombia to combat drug trafficking and armed groups in the Andean nation. Mexico has always considered certification requirements a violation of its sovereignty.

The United Steelworkers sent letters to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that "without significant and concrete improvements in institutional mechanisms to weed out criminals, provide training in human rights, and establish effective civilian oversight, additional funding to these security forces is likely to worsen corruption and violence."