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U.S. anti-drug aid would target Mexican cartels

The United States is in talks with Mexico on an aid package of hundreds of millions of dollars to help the Mexican government fight drug cartels, U.S. and Mexican officials said on Wednesday.
/ Source: Reuters

The United States is in talks with Mexico on an aid package of hundreds of millions of dollars to help the Mexican government fight drug cartels, U.S. and Mexican officials said on Wednesday.

The aid package, which has been under discussion for months and requires U.S. congressional approval, would seek to help Mexican President Felipe Calderon grapple with a surge in drug-related violence in his country, where half a dozen cartels are fighting turf battles.

“We’re looking at assistance, technical training and equipment to fight the increasing drug warfare they (Mexico) have,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who represents a district that borders Mexico, said in a telephone interview.

Cuellar, who introduced legislation early this year to combat Mexico’s drug trade, said he was hopeful Bush would announce the new drug-fighting initiative for Mexico at a meeting in Quebec on August 20-21 with Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“The discussions are pretty well advanced ... they are looking at that sort of timing,” said a senior U.S. official who asked not to be named.

Mexico, the main narcotics trafficking route from South America to the United States, has seen a surge in drug-related killings since 2005 as cartels fight for control of the multibillion dollar trade.

Some 1,400 people have been killed in such violence this year, including scores of police and about 20 soldiers.

The Mexican Embassy in a statement said Calderon’s government was “fully committed to confronting head-on organized crime operating in Mexico,” and said the talks were aimed at “deepening counternarcotics bilateral cooperation.”

Battling corruption
For years, Mexican drug traffickers cut deals with corrupt police, judges and politicians from Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

But crackdowns by former President Vicente Fox, who ousted the PRI in a 2000 election, and by Calderon, who was sworn in December, have shaken up the cartels and led to turf wars.

A U.S. congressional aide said the package under discussion reflected a “sea change” in U.S. and Mexican drug cooperation after years of mutual recrimination.

“What we’re looking at is a couple of hundred million (dollars) but the real story is not the number but the fact that the Mexicans are willing to ... work cooperatively,” said the aide, who asked not to be named.

“That’s the sea change. The finger-pointing is over,” he added, noting the history of U.S. officials demanding that Mexico do more to crack down on drug trafficking and Mexican demands that the United States curb its appetite for narcotics.

Colombia gets billions
Cuellar said it was unclear whether the initiative -- if it is launched -- would be funded by Congress in appropriations bills that will be debated when lawmakers return from an August recess, or whether much of the funding would have to wait until the next round of spending bills are written early next year.

He complained that current U.S. aid to Mexico pales in comparison to amounts to Colombia and Peru, despite the huge border shared by the United States and Mexico and the large trading relationship of the two countries.

The United States has spent more than $4 billion in aid since 2000 to help the drug fighting effort in Colombia, despite complaints from many U.S. Democrats that it has bolstered a sometimes corrupt military, not addressed social and economic needs, and has not been effective in stemming the drug trade.