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U.S. aid offer angers Mexico

Officials south of the border call the plan, with human rights strings attached, a form of interference.

June 05, 2008|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Billed as a way to strengthen bilateral ties, a proposed U.S. aid package for Mexican crime-fighting efforts has instead turned into a fresh reminder of the prickly dynamics that often drive the two nations apart.

At issue are human rights conditions that Congress attached to the so-called Merida Initiative, a three-year $1.4-billion proposal by the Bush administration to equip and train security forces in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to combat drug trafficking.

Senior Mexican officials have called the provisions a form of U.S. interference and threatened to turn down the first-year installment if the conditions survive in a final version yet to be worked out by the House and Senate.

The two chambers approved different first-year sums for Mexico, $400 million in the House and $350 million in the Senate. But both imposed requirements to guard against human rights abuses and corruption by Mexican officials.

"The legislative initiatives approved in both chambers of the U.S. Congress incorporate some aspects that make them, in their current versions, unacceptable for our country," Juan Camilo Mourino, Mexico's second-highest-ranking official and a proxy for President Felipe Calderon, said this week.

Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, who leads the government's current crackdown on drug trafficking, said the money wouldn't make or break the effort. That campaign, which includes 45,000 troops and federal police, has come as violence has claimed more than 4,100 lives since Calderon took office in December 2006.

Garcia Luna suggested that the money might do more good on the U.S. side to quell arms-smuggling across the border into Mexico.

The Mexican comments are aimed, in part, at persuading the Democrat-controlled Congress to delete the human rights provisions. Congress required that alleged violations by soldiers be prosecuted by civilian authorities rather than the military and that assistance be barred for authorities involved in corruption.

The flap highlights the delicate political sensitivities that hover over the U.S.-Mexican relationship.

Mexicans, who haven't forgotten losing a war to the United States 160 years ago, are fiercely protective of their sovereignty. Officials here are quick to resist what they see as efforts by their northern neighbor to assert its will south of the border.

Mexicans often frame the problem of drug violence, which has left more than 1,400 dead here thus far this year, as one driven mainly by the U.S. appetite for illegal drugs.

For their part, U.S. officials have long been wary of granting security aid to Mexico, with its history of corruption and the army's human rights record.

"Ensuring that our tax dollars are spent effectively and in accordance with basic human rights is the least that Congress and the taxpayers have a right to insist on," said U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid.

Still, some analysts say the good news is that all sides seem to agree on the need for collaboration against drug trafficking.

"These are the growing pains of a closer cooperation," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "It's a difficult relationship. It's not going to be the last time there are misunderstandings."

Mexican critics of the aid conditions have drawn parallels to drug certification of the 1990s -- the annual process in which the U.S. judged the anti-drug efforts of recipient countries before doling out aid. The policy angered Mexico and strained bilateral relations.

The newest initiative grew out of meetings between President Bush and Calderon in March 2007 in Merida, Mexico.

Mexico would get military hardware, such as helicopters and surveillance airplanes, along with high-tech scanners to detect drugs and other contraband and training and equipment for police.

The proposal includes $100 million in the first year for efforts in Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Bush administration officials warn that the congressional conditions could torpedo the package and deal a blow to Calderon's 18-month-old war on organized crime.

Mexican commentators say the aid conditions are little more than U.S. meddling.

"To turn this initiative into a form of institutional scrutiny of our armed forces and the government in general is an affront," columnist Federico Reyes Heroles wrote in the daily Reforma newspaper.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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