WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a 2009 spending bill that includes an additional $405 million for a program to fight drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico and Central America.
With a vote of 245-178, the legislators gave the green light Wednesday to the $410 billion “omnibus” bill for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. It now will go to the Senate for consideration there.
The $405 million for the so-called Merida Initiative is in addition to another $465 million approved last year as part of another bill, legislative sources said.
The outlay for the Merida Initiative was included as part of the foreign aid portion of the State Department’s budget for the current fiscal year and is to be spent on helicopters and other military equipment.
The Merida Initiative, proposed by former President George W. Bush in 2007, is a $1.4 billion, three-year regional security plan whose goal is to strengthen cooperation in the drug war, intelligence sharing and police training programs.
The approval of additional funding for the Merida Initiative comes at a time of heightened concern about spiraling violence in Mexico, where heavily armed drug-trafficking gangs have been battling each other for the past few years over lucrative supply routes to the United States.
Armed groups linked to the cartels murdered around 2,700 people in 2007 and 1,500 in 2006, with the 2008 death toll soaring to 5,630, according to a tally by the Mexico City daily El Universal.
So far this year, about 1,000 people have died in the violence in Mexico, while drug-related violence has also climbed sharply in Central America in recent years.
Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 30,000 soldiers and federal police to nearly a dozen of Mexico’s 31 states in a bid to stem the wave of violence unleashed by drug traffickers.
The anti-drug operation, however, has failed to put a dent in the violence due, according to experts, to drug cartels’ ability to buy off the police and even high-ranking prosecutors.
While stopping short of calling Mexico a failed state, U.S. experts and politicians alike say the United States must step up efforts to help that country battle drug trafficking and organized crime.
They say the drug-related violence, which mainly affects cities along the countries’ shared border, could spill across the frontier and threaten stability on the U.S. side. EFE