Reporting from Washington —
The Obama administration is considering a substantial spending increase on the Mexican drug war, the latest sign of its growing concern about the rampant violence incited by narcotics cartels in Mexico.
Administration officials said internal debate on the issue continues, and they are not yet at a point where they can estimate how much of an increase may be requested. But they said the matter is considered urgent even at a time when the White House is struggling with costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The joint anti-drug effort with the Mexican government "remains a top administration priority," said a White House official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "We are constantly evaluating our efforts to make sure we are doing all we can on this issue."
The U.S. government has been assisting the Mexican government in its battle against well-financed and heavily armed drug cartels engaged in a bloodbath of assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and car bombings. The persistent violence has raised questions about how much control the Mexican government has over large swaths of the country and concern among some Obama administration officials and U.S. governors of border states that it could spill increasingly into the United States.
Last week, the U.S. State Department announced it would pull out the children of its diplomatic personnel from Monterrey, Mexico's most industrialized city. In March, gunmen believed linked to drug traffickers shot a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband to death in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso.
In the last month, 72 migrants were found slaughtered on a northern Mexico ranch, two mayors were slain in the state of Tamaulipas, and headless bodies were found hanging from a bridge in Cuernavaca.
U.S. officials have been debating for some time how they will follow up the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.6-billion program started in 2008 by President Bush to provide equipment, training and intelligence information to the Mexican, Central American and Caribbean governments in their fight against drug gangs.
Obama administration officials, fearing that the Mexican government's 4-year-old military-led strategy has fallen short, have begun adjusting the U.S. program to place more emphasis on strengthening Mexico's civilian law enforcement system and fighting poverty in the country.
U.S. officials say that designing the best approach involves delicate political questions, such as how to deal with the permeating corruption of the Mexican government.
"We're looking at what more needs to be done, absolutely," said Alonzo Pena, deputy director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But they have to address the corruption issue."
Giving the Mexican government 12 new Black Hawk helicopters to fight the drug lords has no value, he said, if corrupt officials tip off the cartels before the choppers swoop in. He said U.S. officials cooperate fully only with those officials they know they can trust.
Another issue for policymakers is trying to improve the human rights record of Mexican crime-fighting agencies.
The Obama administration announced Friday it would recommend that Congress release $36 million in withheld Merida funding because of a favorable report on Mexico's progress in the area of human rights abuses.
But State Department officials said that a separate $26 million from the program should be withheld because they still want to see progress on "some aspects of Mexico's human rights effort." They didn't specify what the shortcomings were.
The rules for the Merida spending provide that Congress withhold 15% of the appropriations until the administration certifies that Mexico is meeting specified requirements on human rights practices.
Kyle Spector, an analyst at the Third Way research organization in Washington, praised the U.S. government for stepping up cooperation with the Mexican government, but said the Obama administration has not come far enough in shaping a successor to the Merida program.
"Much of its plan remains vague," he said.
Times staff writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.