MEXICO CITY -- The White House announced Monday a $1.4-billion military and security package to assist Mexico and several Central American countries in their fight against drug-trafficking groups threatening the region's democracies.
President Bush requested an initial $550-million appropriation from Congress, with the rest of the funds to be distributed over one or two years. The aid is to go for helicopters, police training and communications and data-processing equipment.
The package "delivers vital assistance for our partners in Mexico and Central America, who are working to break up drug cartels and fight organized crime," Bush said. "All of these are urgent priorities of the United States, and the Congress should fund them without delay."
In Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in the region, drug traffickers have infiltrated police agencies, killed scores of public officials and journalists, and gunned down or decapitated rivals. The terror they sow has silenced the media in several Mexican cities and towns along the border with the U.S.
The initial request includes $500 million for Mexico and an additional $50 million for six Central American countries. The aid would mark a tenfold increase in the annual drug assistance now provided to Mexico.
The plan came after months of negotiations between U.S. and Mexican officials. Mexican diplomats had said that Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon would announce the plan at a joint appearance. But in the end, Bush made the official announcement at a Washington news conference.
Mexican officials appeared caught off guard by the Washington news. Just an hour before the Bush news conference, Mexico's Foreign Ministry said it would have no announcement Monday on the proposed aid package.
"The Mexican state must confront organized crime groups that have enormous resources and highly sophisticated weapons," Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said at a news conference. "Given the dimensions of the problem, cooperation with the government of the United States is indispensable."
Democrats on Capitol Hill complained that the Bush administration drafted the proposal without consulting Congress.
"With 'Plan Mexico,' the devil will be in the details, and to this point, details are scarce," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. "Dropping a $1.4-billion plan on our doorstep without much forewarning makes it harder to build a consensus and develop sound policy."
More than 3,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since January 2006. And drug traffickers are said to be trying to influence next month's presidential election in Guatemala: They are believed to have killed several dozen party officials and candidates in the last year.
Officials called the plan "the Merida Initiative," after the Mexican city where Bush and Calderon met in March to discuss security and other issues. But the Mexican media long ago dubbed the aid package "Plan Mexico," a reference to Plan Colombia, the 2000 initiative under which U.S. taxpayers have spent billions to assist Colombia in battling its drug cartels.
Indeed, the proposal calls for the largest aid package to Latin America since Plan Colombia. But Mexican officials stress that, unlike that plan, this one will involve no U.S. military personnel on the recipient's soil.
"This is not a Plan Colombia," Espinosa said in a recent interview with The Times. "There has been agreement with the Americans in a framework of cooperation with Mexico that does not include military troops."
Plan Colombia has strengthened that country's judicial and police institutions, but has done little to stop the flow of cocaine north. Mexico and Central America are way stations in the shipment of cocaine to the United States: U.S. officials estimate drug traffickers transfer $8 billion to $24 billion in profits from the U.S. to Mexico annually.
Bush announced the new plan as part of his supplemental funding request for military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2008 fiscal year. Details will be included in the appropriations requests likely to be submitted this week.
Administration officials said the centerpiece of the aid package would be training Mexico's police forces. Mexican diplomats said negotiations dragged on for months because representatives from a dozen police, military and drug enforcement agencies on both sides of the border were involved in drafting the details.
Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City security analyst, said the aid would mark a dramatic change in the quantity of counter- narcotics aid to Mexico.
"Obviously, it doesn't solve the drug problem, but with this help the Mexican government will probably be more effective in fighting the traffickers," he said. "But if Mexico doesn't do much more than accept the money, the help won't be effective. Basically, the big problem here is corruption."
Chabat said the U.S. had long resisted major aid to Mexico because of fears the money would be channeled to police and officials with ties to the drug trade.
"If the U.S. government is willing to give this much money, it suggests they have confidence that Calderon's government will eventually be successful in controlling corruption," he said.
Calderon has made the drug war a signature element of his presidency, sending army troops into several Mexican states and extraditing top cartel operatives to face trial in the U.S
Human rights groups expressed skepticism about the initiative's ability to address issues at the core of the drug trade: high demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., and poverty in Mexico and other countries.
"We need to be clear that while this package may have a positive short-term impact on drug trafficking and violence in Mexico, there should be no expectations that it will stem the flow of drugs into the United States," said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America.
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