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February 8, 2008 -- Houston Chronicle (TX)

[Mexican] Cartels Are A Political Risk, U.S. Told

Millions Could Go to Help Mexico Fight Drug Groups Making $24 Billion a Year

By Dane Schiller, Houston and Dudley Althaus, Mexico City

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Lobbying for nearly $550 million in aid for Mexico and Central America, a senior U.S. official warned Congress on Thursday that billions of dollars in drug cartel profits have made the gangs powerful enough to challenge their governments.

Support must be given to President Felipe Calderon's administration as it battles a criminal underworld that smuggles 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, Anthony Placido, the intelligence chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a congressional subcommittee considering the aid package.

"In an age when we are increasingly concerned about the spread of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it is imperative that we support and strengthen government institutions, particularly those of our immediate neighbors," Placido told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in Washington.

The Bush and Calderon administrations are pushing for the aid package, which they proposed last March under a joint initiative called Plan Merida. The package was later expanded to include Central America, through which large quantities of cocaine flow.

Equipment and Support

The three-year initiative would send $1.4 billion in U.S. police equipment, training and support to Mexican and Central American security forces. Congress is expected to vote on the plan sometime this year.

Sixteen of the 41 major drug trafficking organizations the DEA has identified in Latin America are based in Mexico.

Calderon has made fighting those gangs an anchor of his administration since taking office 14 months ago. He has sent 30,000 troops and federal police against them.

"We are fighting crime and violence with all the force of the government," Calderon said Wednesday in a meeting with the United Nations' top human-rights official, who is on a fact-finding visit to the country. "We must remember that guaranteeing public security is an elemental function of government."

Human-rights advocates, including the government's own top rights official, have criticized the use of the military in police work, urging that the troops return to the barracks. But Calderon and other officials argue that the troops' involvement in the drug war is essential because Mexico's state, local and federal police are not up to the task.

"It is in our own best interest in the United States that we have a strong, safe and secure Mexico -- whatever violence and cartels they have there can spill over into the United States," Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who supports the funding, said after the committee hearing.

U.S. the Main Customer

While huge compared to past U.S. security aid to Mexico, the Plan Merida funds would pale in comparison to the $24 billion in annual drug cartel earnings from American sales, according to an estimate by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

"We understand that U.S. drug consumption provides much of the demand that makes trafficking in illegal drugs such a potentially profitable crime," Scott Burns, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said at the congressional hearing.

A large portion of the narcotics' profits are smuggled back into Mexico as cash, the intelligence center reports, finding their way into the Mexican economy and providing bribes for police and other officials.

The drug profits also buy top-of-the-line weapons for the drug gangs, who are often better armed than government forces.

Many of those weapons are smuggled in from Texas and other U.S. states.

Police in Mexico City recently seized a large cache of weapons, including grenade launchers and automatic rifles, from groups believed to be underworld hit teams targeting top drug enforcement officials here.

"No one can deny the severity of this problem," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the subcommittee chairman. "As a country that consumes most of the drugs coming from Mexico and sends most of the guns to Mexico, the United States has a moral responsibility to help."

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