Author Topic: U.S., Mexico in talks to bolster drug fight  (Read 54 times)

Elano

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U.S., Mexico in talks to bolster drug fight
« on: August 09, 2007, 07:48:35 AM »
Amid plans to increase levels of American aid and intelligence, Calderon tries to balance the need for security and preservation of his nation's sovereignty.

Mexico and the Bush administration are negotiating plans to greatly increase levels of U.S. aid and intelligence sharing on narcotics trafficking, presenting President Felipe Calderon with a politically challenging balancing act as his nation tries to stem runaway drug violence and assuage fears of a greater U.S. role in Mexican affairs.

If approved by Congress, the reported aid package to Mexico would be well below the $5 billion Washington has spent fighting the cocaine industry in Colombia over the last seven years. But politically, such an agreement could mark a turning point in U.S.-Mexico relations, which for decades have been marked by mutual suspicion despite closer trade ties.

Already, Mexico is installing a surveillance system, funded by the U.S. State Department, to enable eavesdropping on e-mails and cellphone calls.

Further details of the new aid have been kept secret, but officials said Wednesday that proposals totaled hundreds of millions of dollars and included more surveillance, a national radar system, as well as communications systems, aircraft and training.

"We're talking about technology, training and equipment," said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). "The Mexicans want surveillance equipment for wiretapping and that sort of assistance. And beyond that, radar for better aircraft surveillance."

Cuellar said the White House should release details of the proposal so that he and other foreign aid supporters could lobby congressional colleagues. Mexico, he said, receives less than $69 million a year in U.S. foreign assistance.

"We finally have a Mexican president who's willing to take brave steps," Cuellar said. "But if we lose that opportunity, the window will close."

An aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the subcommittee controlling foreign aid expenditures, complained that his office had heard nothing from the White House about a deal.

"Sen. Leahy believes that in Iraq and beyond, this administration is accustomed to writing checks for hundreds of millions of dollars and expecting Congress to cash them without consultation or question," aide David Carle said.

During a U.S. State Department briefing Tuesday, spokesman Sean McCormack would not elaborate on the aid package but confirmed negotiations between the countries were continuing.

"President Calderon has taken a brave and firm stance in fighting these drug cartels," he said, "and we want to talk to them about how we can support that."

Calderon has repeatedly called for more help from the U.S., the top consumer in the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine commerce that has led to increased violence in several Mexican states. The number of drug-related homicides has surpassed 1,500 so far this year, well ahead of last year's pace.

During a March meeting with President Bush, Calderon talked tough about the U.S. role in Mexico's drug violence, comments that made national headlines and drew favorable commentary.

"We're not asking the U.S. for charity, we're asking them to assume co-responsibility of the situation," Calderon said later during a European tour. "The U.S. government must do more to reduce consumption and to halt gun trafficking to Mexico."

But the details of such help will probably leave Mexicans wary.

"Mexicans are very sensitive to anything associated with military assistance or any type of U.S. technical assistance that would be perceived as an infringement of Mexican sovereignty," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The Calderon administration, being a minority government with a healthy and vocal opposition, needs to be that much more careful that any type of cooperation pass the political smell test," he added. "Calderon doesn't want to be seen as handing over the keys to the house."

The political smell test will include tough questions about conditions placed on the aid and how much room Mexico would give U.S. authorities to operate within its borders and be privy to surveillance information. Sovereignty for Mexicans has traditionally meant keeping the United States at arm's length.

Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration working in Mexico, for example, are forbidden to conduct independent operations, make arrests or carry weapons. Any U.S. military presence in Mexico would draw national protests.

Riding a wave of national popularity for taking on drug traffickers, Calderon had hoped to complete negotiations with Washington before word leaked out, said Calderon administration sources. The Mexican newspaper El Universal quoted from a Washington Post article on the aid negotiations Wednesday, and several other U.S. media have written about the proposal.

None of the aides would speak for attribution, fearing any report would hamper negotiations and alienate Mexican senators who have to approve broad international agreements.

Calderon is simultaneously trying to rally support for a fiscal reform package that will require support from other political parties, some of which look askance at any U.S. involvement in Mexico's internal affairs.

Calderon has shown a willingness to cooperate since taking office in December. After winning a close and disputed election, he almost immediately declared war on drug gangs responsible for thousands of killings.

In January, Mexico sent several high-profile drug suspects to stand trial in the United States.

Both nations could benefit from closer cooperation, analysts said. For the U.S., expansion of its intelligence reach into Mexico would aid in the Bush administration's declared war on terrorism by allowing better watch over its porous southern border. Mexico benefits from advanced technology and the training to use it against well-financed Mexican drug organizations, which smuggle an estimated 90% of the cocaine sold in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Energy this year promised Mexico radiation detection systems to monitor shipping containers for weapons of mass destruction at four seaports, part of a bilateral agreement that includes information sharing between the countries. A new strategic pact between the countries' customs agencies will be announced Monday. But even with growing U.S. help, and the Mexican army on patrol in nine states, Calderon's battle with drug smugglers has seen few victories.

To gain popular approval for any new foreign aid agreement, analysts said, Calderon must win White House acknowledgment of the role Americans play in Mexico's troubles: buying drugs and selling weapons.

One sign of goodwill was a June visit to Mexico City organized by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives The four ATF bosses responsible for the border states met with Mexican federal agents about expanding joint efforts in tracking weapons.

"Supposedly 90% of the guns here are from the United States," said John A. Torres, head of the Los Angeles office and one of the visitors. "ATF is already helping the Mexicans, but we want it to grow. We're trying to develop more trust."

Still unclear is how much information and technology U.S. authorities are willing to pass on to Mexico, where corruption has compromised drug operations.

Mexico is already shouldering more responsibility in the war on drugs because U.S. military surveillance of smuggling routes has fallen during the war in Iraq.