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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

U.S. anti-drug aid slow to arrive, study finds

Security help for Mexico promised under the so-called Merida Initiative, including helicopters and scanners for contraband detection, has been held up by red tape, a U.S. agency says.

December 04, 2009|By Ken Ellingwood

Reporting from Mexico City — A small fraction of U.S. aid for Mexico's drug war under the so-called Merida Initiative has been delivered because of red tape and the time needed to order helicopters and other equipment, a U.S. government report concluded Thursday.

An examination by the Government Accountability Office said that just $26 million had been spent by the end of September, or 2% of the nearly $1.3 billion in security aid that had been appropriated for Mexico under the multiyear program.

The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, said delays also stemmed from congressional restrictions and the need to ready Mexican and U.S. agencies for a big jump in the flow of bilateral assistance.

Because of the delays, "few programs have been delivered and limited funding has been expended to date," the report said.

Mexican officials, locked in a bloody three-year offensive against drug cartels, have complained that the promised U.S. help, including Bell helicopters and scanners that detect contraband hidden in cargo trucks, has been too slow to reach them.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised during a visit here in March to speed up delivery of the equipment. The GAO report said her push succeeded in trimming the time required to obtain the aircraft. Five Bell BH-412 helicopters are scheduled to arrive later this month.

So far this year, the U.S. has supplied 26 armored vehicles, 30 scanners and five vans outfitted with X-ray technology. Still on order, the report said, are an unspecified number of Black Hawk helicopters, which generally take 12 to 18 months to build, the agency said.

Then-President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced the Merida plan in October 2007, 10 months after Calderon launched his government's military-led crackdown on drug gangs.

The aid package, reflecting a huge boost in U.S. security assistance for Mexico, includes vehicles, computer equipment and training for police, court personnel and jailers. The aim is to bolster the Mexican government's ability to fight organized crime, but also to improve the judicial system and improve rule of law overall.

Thursday's report prompted calls in Washington for more urgent action to help Mexico.

"As President Calderon confronts his country's brutal drug cartels head on, we must cut through our own government's red tape to get Merida Initiative assistance flowing to Mexico more quickly," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

The GAO cited congressional requirements, such as human rights conditions added last year that withheld 15% of funds until the State Department certified that Mexico was investigating and prosecuting abuses. The department issued the finding despite persistent complaints of abuses by Mexican troops and an opaque system of prosecution.

It also took time to hire employees at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and at recipient Mexican agencies to manage a sevenfold increase in aid, the GAO report said.

The State Department acknowledged that spending had not been as quick as planned, but said that didn't tell the whole story. The department said Merida aid was being put to robust use, such as the training this year of thousands of Mexican federal police officers.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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