U.S. assistance to help Mexico fight drug traffickers will probably continue beyond the allotted three years of the Merida Initiative, with expanding cooperation but not joint law enforcement or military operations "on Mexican soil any time soon," a senior Obama administration official said.
The $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, an anti-drug package designed under the Bush administration, ends next year. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, the senior official outlined Obama administration priorities in supporting the government of President Felipe Calderon in its battle with the cartels and the violence and corruption they engender - much of it along the Texas border.
U.S. and Mexican officials are looking for ways to gradually move the focus of their efforts from dismantling and disrupting cartels to strengthening Mexico's weak democratic institutions and weeding out corruption, the official said.
"Corruption remains a pretty significant concern," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That's a serious, serious problem. It's gotten better than it was, but we need more trusted counterparts to mount effective operations."
The bleak assessment is shared by some Mexican officials. The battle has "exposed Mexico's corruption and vulnerabilities and weak judicial institutions," Joel Ortega, Mexico City's former police chief, said recently at Columbia University in New York City.
"To win this war, we will need the full participation of society, including the media and law enforcement," Ortega said. "We're facing the biggest threat to our country's national security."
Since Calderon took office in December 2006, more than 14,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. This is the bloodiest year yet, with more than 6,000 dead, including about 2,280 just in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso.
The violence has prodded many Mexican families and businesses to relocate on the U.S. side of the border, and spillover violence has touched several Texas cities, including El Paso, Laredo and Dallas, which have recorded killings tied to drug traffickers in Mexico.
Drug traffickers maintain a significant presence in as much as 40 percent of all Mexican territory, according to a study by Colegio de la Frontera Norte - College of the Northern Border - in Tijuana.
In recent weeks, officials from the two countries have been meeting in Washington and Mexico City to coordinate efforts beyond the Merida Initiative.
The final installment of that package is awaiting final approval by the U.S. Congress.
The Obama administration will seek to fund a counternarcotics package to Mexico and Central America, though under a different name to reflect the administration's shift in priorities, the official said. Those priorities include focusing on training judges and law enforcement officials and working with communities to create job opportunities to prevent young people from seeking jobs with cartels.
U.S. aid isn't likely to surpass the $1.4 billion allotted to the Merida Initiative since big-ticket equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters won't be included, the official said.
As with the Merida Initiative, Mexico will probably get the bulk of the funding, with lesser amounts going to Central American countries, particularly Guatemala, where Mexican cartels have significant operations.
"Our focus will be citizen security and safety," the official stressed. "It has to be."
Patience among Mexican citizens may be wearing thin, the official said, and significant progress must be made in the months to come or support for Calderon's campaign could unravel, hampering long-term efforts after Calderon leaves office in 2012.
"If you don't have significant progress, it doesn't matter who the next guy is because it won't be popular," the official said of the anti-drug effort. "I don't know if success means top narcos going down, or the strengthening of institutional reforms, or the economy getting better, or a combination of those.
"But something has to get significantly better if Mexico is to continue moving forward."
'Mask of sovereignty'
In recent informal remarks at Harvard University, Mayor Ramon Garza Barrios of Nuevo Laredo, another Mexican city on the Texas border that has been plagued by drug violence and corruption, applauded the Obama administration's plan to direct more attention to municipalities.
He also said he would favor joint law enforcement or military operations - a sensitive topic in Mexico because of sovereignty concerns.
"On the border, we don't hide behind the protective mask of sovereignty," said Garza, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and a possible future gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas state. "If we're talking co-responsibility, then we have to do everything on both sides to achieve greater coordination, even joint operations," he said, "as long as both governments agree on the terms and everything is aboveboard."
November 21, 2009
Dallas Morning News
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US Priorities Shifting In Mexico's Drug Fight