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US Officials Seek Drug War Change

The Obama administration wants to shift U.S. aid in Mexico away from high-priced helicopters and airplanes and toward reforming Mexico’s corrupt law enforcement, courts and politicians.

Marking a dramatic change from past years, most of the $310 million that the Obama administration seeks for Mexico in its 2011 budget request is aimed at judicial reforms and good governance programs in Mexico.

“We are moving away from big ticket equipment” and toward programs that support “Mexican capacity to sustain adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen in testimony prepared for a congressional subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

“The starkest shift is in how funding will be spent,” said Shannon O’Neil of the Council of Foreign Relations, also in prepared testimony provided to The Associated Press ahead of Thursday’s hearings.

While the administration has previously talked about emphasizing institution-building and prevention instead of law enforcement in the fight against drugs, State Department budgets obtained by The Associated Press show that funding has remained almost entirely devoted to law enforcement.

The proposals to be unveiled Thursday indicate that may soon change, marking a fundamental shift in the way the Untied States has waged its war on drugs for four decades.

The changes are not going to be easy, nor direct.

“Successful programs focused on building institutions and economic opportunity are much harder to deliver than helicopters or boats,” O’Neil said. “But they also hold more promise for long-term solutions, as they recognize the complicated realities of Mexico’s drug war and the limitations of military hardware in changing the tide.”

Mexico’s foreign relations secretary, Patricia Espinosa, said Tuesday that changes – and a commitment to continue working together – are welcome.

“Because of the characteristics of the phenomenon of organized crime, we cannot think that the problems will end after just two or three years of cooperation,” she said.

Espinosa said U.S. aid may be directed specifically to social programs in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1 million bordering El Paso, Texas, where drug cartel violence killed more than 2,600 people last year, making it one of the most violent places in the world.

Thousands of Mexican soldiers and federal police have failed to ease crime there, prompting President Felipe Calderon to announce a new approach that would involve jobs, education and other community support.

Espinosa said Mexico would like to see U.S. programs involved “as part of the comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem of transnational organized crime.”

Until 2007, the U.S. had been spending about $50 million in aid to Mexico each year. But that year, Mexico’s newly elected President Felipe Calderon vowed to crack down on powerful drug cartels and President George W. Bush said he would help.

Thus the Merida Initiative began with a $500 million grant that Bush said would buy and maintain six helicopters and two airplanes for the United States’ neighbors to the south. Within months, the State Department said the grants and training fund had almost tripled, to $1.4 billion, in a three-year package.

Bureaucratic tie ups slowed the funding from the start. The first letter of agreement between Mexico and the United States was signed in December 2008. And so far, Congress has approved $1.1 billion, not $1.4 billion, under Merida. The AP reported last week, citing State Department records, that deliveries to date are just a fraction of that – $161 million – and are almost entirely spent on law enforcement equipment.

The investment and crackdown have failed to halt drug-related violence, which has killed 23,000 Mexicans in the past three years, or the availability of drugs in the U.S. marketplace, the world’s biggest.

Obama said Tuesday that he would send as many as 1,200 National Guard troops back to the U.S.-Mexico border to help battle illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The hearings Thursday in two congressional subcommittees are to discuss the next steps in what is already dubbed “Beyond Merida.”

Former Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte said in his prepared comments that the U.S. should raise its investment because Merida has sparked something money can’t buy: unprecedented cooperation.

Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who has been working on drug control for 35 years, urged legislators to not be discouraged by the increased violence or drug availability.

“Problems with narcotrafficking remain with us today notwithstanding the enormous blood and treasure that has been expending up and down the length of the hemisphere to deal with these issues,” he said. “So we just all agree that this is a long-term issue to which there are no quick fixes.”

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