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$1.4 billion U.S.-Mexico anti-drug program to entail use of private contractors

Dallas Morning News (2007-10-19) Alfredo Corchado

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$1.4 billion program with U.S. faces an uphill battle

10:50 PM CDT on Friday, October 19, 2007

By Alfredo Corchado / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Mexican governments are expected Monday to announce an anti-drug package that will probably involve hiring private U.S. military contractors to train Mexican troops on the use of new technologies and equipment, senior U.S. officials said.

The government's use of private contractors has been highly controversial, especially since a deadly incident involving contractors last month in Iraq.

The counternarcotics plan, estimated at $1.4 billion over two years, is expected to be announced simultaneously by President Bush in Washington and President Felipe Calderón in Mexico City. It will cap seven months of talks carried out in response to spreading drug violence, considered by many the biggest threat to Mexican security.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the plan "a quantum leap forward, partly because Mexico is willing to take that risk to build a new relationship."

"This is transformational diplomacy at its best, but don't expect miracles," the official said. "If we can do this right with a partner who really wants to change the relationship, then this will have an impact on the future of the relationship."

The plan calls for increasing U.S. anti-drug aid to Mexico, now estimated at $44 million a year, to $1.4 billion over two to three years, said officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The assistance is designed to train Mexican law enforcement officials to more effectively take on drug traffickers equipped with advanced weapons, high-tech communications gear, and aircraft.

Designed to bolster Mexico's telecommunications capability, the plan will also establish a nationwide database for tracking criminals and help secure the country's airspace and its coastal waters, where 85 percent of all smuggling takes place, Mexican officials have said.

The package does not include wiretapping equipment, which the senior U.S. official described as causing a "bigger headache than it's worth."

The package calls for strengthening Mexico's rule of law. It will include training to establish a witness protection and victim assistance program in a nation where 95 percent of crimes go unresolved, U.S. officials said. U.S. agencies involved will include the State and Justice departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Despite reports that the plan involves primarily military aid, the senior U.S. official said that less than a third will be military-related. The official said that any comparison to Plan Colombia – a multiyear anti-drug plan for that South American nation, including a military component – is "grossly exaggerated."

The U.S. aid package will complement Mexico's annual budget of $7 billion to tackle organized crime, officials from both countries have said, and both sides will set benchmarks to measure success.

The aid package includes $50 million for Central America, to be distributed among the region's seven countries. But the bulk of the money will likely go to Guatemala and El Salvador, where some of the region's most violent transnational gangs, including the Maras, are strong, U.S. officials have said.

"The package is intended to help Mexico and Central America deal with transnational crime and, in so doing, will help make the U.S. more secure," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman.

The plan – under negotiation since March and first reported by The Dallas Morning News in May – is subject to U.S. and Mexican congressional approval.

In Washington, members of Congress and staffers said in interviews that many key members support the package, but that it may face "an uphill battle" in getting approval. They point to presidential campaign politics, Mr. Bush's low standing in public opinion polls, and the secrecy surrounding the package.

"It's a great idea not being sold well," said one senior Republican Senate aide.

The issue of using private contractors in Mexico, a fiercely nationalistic country, is likely to generate controversy.

Mexican officials have long insisted that any U.S. aid package will not include U.S. troops and agents conducting operations on Mexican soil. On Friday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington declined comment.

The Sept. 16 killings in Iraq reignited controversy over the use of private contractors to carry out government work abroad. A group of private American security guards is accused of shooting and killing as many as 17 Iraqi civilians in a traffic circle in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government has demanded that the contractors be held accountable.

The deaths sparked fresh debate in Congress about the role and conduct of contractors, who have generated controversy in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Colombia.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, expressed concern about the possible use of U.S. private contractors in Mexico. He said the issue has been among the most sensitive areas of negotiations for both governments.

"I've heard that expressed as a concern on the part of Mexican officials, and it also raises an issue of concern for us because of how contractors are being used in Iraq," he said. "That will not be helpful in getting this through Congress."

The senior U.S. official downplayed the use of private contractors, saying that "their role is limited to training only" for the highly technical and military equipment that is part of the package.

Cmdr. Gordon said the package "deals primarily with law enforcement." Regarding the potential role of contractors, he said: "Our discussions with the government of Mexico are preliminary. The final form of any assistance package has not been determined, and will depend on continuing discussions with Mexico, Central American countries, and the U.S. Congress."

Despite his concerns over the possible use of private contractors in Mexico, Mr. Reyes praised the overall package, calling it "a giant leap" in bilateral cooperation.

"This has huge implications, especially for border communities wrestling with violence, immigration, drug trafficking. There's a lot at stake here, very important," he said. "This is a one-shot opportunity to really change the course of the relationship with Mexico and how they can help us manage our 2,000-mile border."

The issue is acute in Texas, Mr. Reyes added, because about half of all drug-smuggling operations into the U.S. involve Texas.

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Title $1.4 billion U.S.-Mexico anti-drug program to entail use of private contractors
Publisher Dallas Morning News
Author Alfredo Corchado
Pub Date 2007-10-19
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Note Implies that Blackwater could be used for training of Mexican drug warriors.
Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Linked Article
Curator Rating Highlighted
Author Name Sortable Corchado, Alfredo
Topic revision: r4 - 04 Jun 2008, RaymondLutz
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