By Ramon Bracamontes / El Paso Times
Posted: 02/07/2009 11:01:52 PM MSTEL PASO - Mexico's vicious drug war - a bloody conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands of people throughout the country - is now costing U.S. taxpayers $465 million so far.
Whether the U.S. will get a return on the investment is the topic of a fiery debate. Locally, some say the so-called Merida Initiative, which will provide $1.4 billion to Mexico and other countries over three years, will not do enough to help reduce the violence that is crippling Mexico and border cities like Juárez.
Others say the U.S. has no business spending one dime in Mexico and argue that improving security along the U.S.-Mexico border should be the priority.
Now, the United States has a $465 million stake in Mexico's brutal drug war.
Whether that is enough or merited remains a point of contention. Some El Paso officials want the U.S. to do more because the violence is beginning to cripple Juárez and, to a lesser degree, El Paso.
As of last month, the U.S. began spending the $465 million that Congress approved last year in the Merida Initiative, a three-year counter-drug and anti-crime package for Mexico and Central America.
Most of the money, $400 million, will be spent on scanners, helicopters, boats and computers in Mexico. Mexican President Felipe Calderón is trying to implement systemic changes he hopes will change a culture that permits powerful drug cartels to thrive.
Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, strongly rebuts any insinuation that Mexico isn't sound or is on the verge of collapsing, as some U.S. military officials claim. Mexican officials make it clear that the Merida plan is a joint cooperating agreement, not the U.S. stepping in.
Overall, the Merida Initiative, as proposed by the Bush administration, will spend $1.4 billion on initiatives in Mexico over three years. However, only $465 million has been approved, and several congressmen have said they want to see how the first phase goes before they approve spending any more money to help Mexico fight the cartels.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he is extremely concerned about the rising violence in Mexican border towns and its dangerous implications for Texas border towns.
"He is currently examining ways to best use federal resources to quell border violence and keep families and businesses in El Paso and all border communities safe," said Jessica Sandlin, Cornyn's Texas press secretary. "He supports assisting the Mexican government in fighting narco-terrorism due to its serious implications for our national security but believes any U.S. assistance should be grounded by strict accountability measures to ensure those funds are being used effectively and responsibly."
Before any money is spent, the U.S. Department of State produced several reports justifying the use of the money. One report issued in January by the Congressional Research Service states that the U.S. has a shared responsibility for combating crime in Mexico because 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States moves through Mexico.
"The Merida Initiative envisions strengthening and integrating security from the U.S. Southwest border to Panama," the federal report states. "The desired end state is to produce a safer and more secure hemisphere where criminal organizations no longer wield the power to destabilize governments nor threaten national and regional security and public safety; as well as to prevent the entry and spread of illicit drugs."
In December, the United States and Mexico signed a letter of agreement allowing $197 million in Merida funds to be disbursed. While President Barack Obama has not officially said whether he will continue to support the Merida plan, the fact he met with Calderón before his inauguration bodes well for future funding, officials said.
"It supports the systemic change that President Calderón is after," said William McGlynn, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
Goals of initiative
The International Narcotics and Law Enforcement bureau of the U.S. State Department is assigned to oversee most of the Merida Initiative money.
McGlynn said the initiative does not call for sending cash or U.S. troops into those countries. All of the money will be used on products bought in the U.S. or on programs the State Department can monitor.
The initiative has four principal goals:
Break the power of criminal organizations.
Help Mexican and Central American governments strengthen their borders and air and sea controls.
Improve justice systems in the region.
Curtail gang activity in Mexico and Central America, and diminish the demand for drugs in the region."This is Mexico's plan, not ours," McGlynn said. "A lot of the tactics and techniques in the Merida Plan are theirs, not ours. We are just supporting what Calderón is doing."
McGlynn said the main reason the U.S. chose to help Mexico is that Calderón is already spending $3 billion of Mexico's money to combat the cartels. And Calderón asked for help.
"The U.S. and Mexico now have a different relationship," he said. "This is the top priority for Mexico right now. It will take a long time for the system to change, but this has not been done before."
Ray Walser, a public policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said that anyone who expects this three-year plan to change the historically corrupt culture in Mexico is expecting too much.
"It is not designed to do that," he said. "But it is a start that will tip the balance of that country in the direction we want it to go. Ending the corruption in that country will be a long battle, but the process is starting."
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said he would rather see all of the money in the Merida Initiative used on the U.S. side of the border to help the Border Patrol and Texas border sheriffs. He is from Houston.
"It is inexcusable, it is intolerable for us to send one dime to the Mexican government when they can afford to pay for this equipment themselves," Culberson said. "But even more importantly than that, our southern border is not secure."
No immediate relief
El Paso city Rep. Beto O'Rourke does not question the use of the money in Mexico or the plan's strategic goal. His concern is that the plan does not provide any immediate relief and does nothing to quickly end the violence.
More than 1,800 people in Juárez have been killed in the past 13 months. Officials estimate that 93 percent of those slain had ties to the cartels. In Mexico, more than 6,000 people have been killed so far.
"The implication that we are not going to do anything, that we are going to let the cartels duke it out is unbelievable especially when innocent people are being killed, businesses are being extorted and everyday Juarenses are being kidnapped," O'Rourke said. "We know the violence is affecting more than just the cartels."
And it will soon affect El Paso, if it hasn't already, officials said. More than 54,000 jobs in El Paso are directly connected to Juárez.
Raymond McGrath, the U.S. consul general in Juárez, said the seriousness of the problem in Juárez is easily evident and increasing daily. As an example, McGrath said, in 2007, Juárez officials were concerned because more than 300 murders had occurred. It was a number they found unacceptable at that time.
"That murder number has quintupled," said McGrath, whose office provides security updates to U.S. officials. "Not only has the murder rate increased dramatically, the level of violence has created an environment in which other forms of criminality have been increasing."
Daily life for the 1.2 million people in Juárez has been disrupted, he said.
"People are going to school and work and back home and that is it," he said. "If they go shopping, they shop for the basics and nothing else. They are not going out at night and they are staying indoors."
He said the service industry has been affected the most. Restaurants are mostly empty, and the occupancy rate for hotels is less than 40 percent.
Bob Cook, president of El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., which recruits businesses to this region, said the drug violence now comes up in every conversation that his office has with out-of-town companies.
"One hundred percent of the time, the Juárez violence comes up," he said. "And they are now taking an extra 90 to 120 days before deciding if they come here. They are concerned and doing risk assessment, but they have yet to say no to coming to this area.
"Strong commerce is taking place, but we need (the violence) to stop because what is happening is not sustainable."
More being done
U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who met with Calderón in January, said the Merida Initiative does as much as it can within the limits placed on it by the Mexican government.
"I can assure you that the U.S. government is not sitting on its hands doing nothing," he said. "There aren't any guarantees that we are going to eliminate the drug cartels and the problems. But everything that we can do, we are doing."
Reyes, chairman of the House intelligence committee, also said that more is being done by the U.S. than what has been made public, but that he is not at liberty to talk about it. Reyes also said that he knows how much in aid, programs and equipment is coming to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Merida plan, but he cannot talk about that either.
Luis Garcia, a retired INS district director who once was to be stationed in Mexico, said the Merida plan is coming at the right time because systemic changes are occurring in Mexico. He bases his observation on the fact that the relationship between U.S. and Mexican agencies has changed in the past 25 years.
The two countries are now cooperating and talking daily, a change from when he was a federal agent.
"Relationships between the two countries before were based on personal relationships," Garcia said. "It was based on who knew each other, not on who was in office. Now, those relationships are institutionalized. All the agencies work together; they talk and work to solve problems.
"This plan is a start, a step in the right direction."
Ramon Bracamontes may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6142.
In June 2008, the 110th Congress appropriated $465 million in supplemental assistance for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
On Dec. 3, 2008, the United States and Mexico signed a letter of agreement, allowing $197 million in Merida funds to be disbursed.
Since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, Mexico has increased security spending to $4 billion.
The Bush Administration designed the Merida Initiative as a $1.4 billion, three-year counter-drug and anti-crime package for Mexico and Central America that would begin in fiscal year 2008 and last through fiscal year 2010.
Funding for 2010 has not been approved.
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