Drug War Aid to Latin America Goes Unspent

A man fills bags with coca leaves at the coca market in La Paz, Thursday, March 1, 2007. In its annual global survey of the drug war, the US State Department, said Thursday that in the Western Hemisphere, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia were identified once again as major suppliers of illegal drugs, mainly cocaine, to the U.S., Europe and Asia. AP

Only $26 million of the $1.4 billion authorized to help Mexico and Central America fight organized crime has been spent due to bureaucracy, conditions placed on the funds by Congress and preparations in recipient countries, according to a government report scheduled for release Thursday.

While nearly all of the $1.4 billion pledged in October 2007 as part of the Merida Initiative has been appropriated by Congress, only about two percent was spent as of Sept. 30, according to a draft copy of a Government Accountability Office report obtained by The Associated Press.

"It sounds like a horror story," Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said of the program's slow implementation. "This was supposed to be an emergency."

There was an air of crisis when Congress approved the first $400 million installment for Mexico in June 2008. At that time, more than 4,000 people had died in drug-related violence in that country since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the drug cartels in December 2006. The death toll now stands at nearly 14,000.

Mexico will get the bulk of the money and so far has received nearly all - $24.2 million - of what has been spent.

It has yielded 26 armored vehicles, 30 machines to detect drugs and explosive materials and five x-ray vans, as well as software and several training programs.

The report blamed red tape and the need to bolster the institutions that will be receiving the funds in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The U.S. too needed to increase staffing at its embassy in Mexico to handle the daily demands created by a seven-fold increase in U.S. law enforcement assistance.

Also, Congress stipulated that some of the money for Mexico could not be spent until the State Department reported that the government had investigated and prosecuted members of its federal police and military who are believed to have committed human rights abuses.

Hakim said it was hard to dispute the human rights concerns expressed by Congress, but that it was counterproductive to attach conditions to funding after an agreement has been cemented.

"The various provisions and conditions are probably worthwhile, but frankly, they are not helpful in building a partnership," he said.

Other delays are bureaucratic. It takes three to six months to negotiate and sign a contract that will send a new helicopter to a country, according to the report. Then it takes a year or more to build the helicopter to the country's specifications. The State Department has had some success in expediting the process though and anticipates the delivery of five new helicopters to Mexico by the end of the year.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the delays, specifically for helicopters, during her visit to Mexico in March.

"I am well aware that our long process of approval was cumbersome and challenging for the Mexican Government," Clinton said. "We're going to see what we can do to cut that time."

One month later, Clinton testified to Congress that "we've got to get the money flowing. Honestly, I don't understand why it's so hard, and we're really digging deep to figure that out."

State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said Wednesday the agency would not comment on a report that had not been formally released.

The initiative resulted from the Merida Summit in March 2007 between President George W. Bush and Calderon. It was a recognition of the shared threat posed by organized crime and called for a huge funding boost spread over three years.

The funds will pay for equipment such as helicopters, non-intrusive scanners, and improved law enforcement communications networks, as well as technical training to strengthen the countries' justice systems and expand anti-gang programs.

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said, "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."
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