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Mexico Welcomes Recently Approved U.S. Aid For Drug Battle

By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexican officials on Friday welcomed U.S. congressional approval of a $400 million anti-drug aid package that drops restrictive conditions opposed by President Felipe Calderon.

The bill contains another $65 million for Central America.

The few remaining conditions on the aid, known as the Merida Initiative, are respectful of Mexican sovereignty and don’t require any legal changes, Mexican Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino said.

“The approval by the U.S. Congress of funds for the Merida initiative is a testament to the mature dialogue between Mexico and the United States, and the mutual trust we have achieved,” Mourino told reporters.

He said the aid showed that the U.S. was willing to help Mexico in the fight against drugs. “What appears to me to be most important, in the end, is that the U.S. government has finally recognized that this is a shared problem, a bilateral one,” Mourino said.

An earlier version of the bill would have required Mexico to change the way it handles allegations of human rights abuses by the military, as well as other oversight measures. Calderon and others had opposed those restrictions, saying they intruded on Mexico’s sovereignty.

As passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday in a 92-6 vote, the program would condition just 15 percent of the aid on Mexico’s efforts to make police more transparent, accountable and responsive to complaints, and ensure investigation of reports of abuse by police or soldiers.

Mexico currently has mechanisms in place to do all those things, but some have questioned their effectiveness.

U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat and senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the bill’s passage.

“I am confident that this language will be acceptable to both the American and Mexican Governments,” Dodd wrote in a statement.

“The United States and Mexico must continue to work together to tackle our common security challenges and reduce drug trafficking and violence on both sides of our border.”

The administration of President George W. Bush had originally requested $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America, as part of a three-year, $1.5 billion plan. Congress reduced the amount destined for Mexico this year, however.

Both Mourino and Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa stressed the anti-drug aid would include equipment, systems and training, not cash, and that no U.S. soldiers would be allowed to operate in Mexico as part of the plan.

“Mexico will not accept the presence of U.S. military personnel in Mexico,” Espinosa said.

Mourino said the plan would include “training programs intended to ensure that all the equipment received will be operated by Mexican personnel.”

He said Mexico wants aircraft, computer and surveillance gear, and inspection equipment such as gamma and X-ray units used to inspect trucks for drug shipments.

Some frictions remain, but compared to the 1980s and early 1990s – when Mexico and the United States frequently sniped at each other’s perceived failures in the anti-drug effort – the current atmosphere is one of cooperation.

The United States has implemented new programs to prevent and punish the trafficking of U.S. weapons that largely fuel bloody drug-turf battles in Mexico, a frequent complaint of Calderon’s.

The increasingly violent conflicts have claimed the lives of thousands – including police officers, soldiers and civilians – this year alone.

“Are we totally satisfied with what is being done? No,” Mourino said, referring to weapons trafficking. “But we are satisfied with having made the U.S. government conscious of the dimensions of this problem.”

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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