Money to fight drug gangs is released to Mexico

Posted in Latin America | 04-Dec-08 | Author: Elisabeth Malkin| Source: International Herald Tribune

A can with heroine remains is seen as an unidentified man lies dead holding a syringe in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico.

MEXICO CITY: The United States formally released on Wednesday the first part of a $400 million aid package to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, a sign of how much more involved the United States is becoming in Mexico's brutal drug war.

The agreement signed here makes almost $200 million available for different programs to strengthen Mexico's law enforcement agencies, treat drug addiction and upgrade the judiciary.

"It should be said: sometimes the narcotraffickers are better coordinated and integrated in their transnational activities than those that are confronting them," said United States Ambassador Antonio Garza.

The money is part of a three-year, $1.4 billion plan, called the Merida Initiative. Congress approved the first $400 million, plus an additional $65 million for Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic in June. The Bush administration has asked for an additional $550 million for 2009, with $450 million of that slated for Mexico.

About $136 million of this year's aid to Mexico is already in place through other agreements, including military cooperation, Garza said. The remaining amount, which includes money for helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican military, is still moving through the bureaucracy.

The list of projects announced Wednesday offered a view of the shortcomings of Mexican law enforcement, both in terms of technology and training. There is money for special X-ray equipment for containers, cargo and trucks, as well as for forensic equipment and a new police registry to ensure that police officers who are dismissed for corruption in one state are not then hired elsewhere. The money will also be used to purchase polygraph machines and computer technology to aid in tracking laundered cash.

Since President Felipe Calderon took office two years ago, he has made the crackdown on drug cartels the centerpiece of his administration, dispatching 30,000 soldiers to restore the government's authority in states where traffickers operated almost unhindered.

The campaign has brought some results, including the arrest of several cartel leaders and record seizures of drugs, arms and cash. But as the cartels have fought one another, as well as the police, the military and local officials, the death toll has increased.

The newspaper El Universal reported Wednesday that, by its count, there have already been more than 5,000 drug-related killings this year, almost double the number last year.

Over the past month, officials have made public a broad investigation of the senior ranks of federal police and prosecutors, dismissing three dozen officials. The former head of the anti-drug unit in the attorney general's office was arrested and charged with tipping off a drug cartel in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Calderon said last week that half of state and local police officers, as well as new hires to the federal preventive police, were not qualified.