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Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - The Merida Initiative


Location: Washington, DC

Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - The Merida Initiative: Assessing Plans to Step Up Our Security Cooperation with Mexico and Central America


REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R-FL): Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman, for calling this hearing. I look forward to hearing from our panelist today.

As we know, after months of historic negotiations between the two governments, the government of Mexico and our government here in the United States, President Bush announced the Merida Initiative on October 22nd.

Developed as a plan of increased cooperation between our two nations to fight the threat of drug trafficking and transnational crime in our Western Hemisphere, the Merida Initiative rightly aims to defeat the perilous threats endangering the youth and prosperity of our nation today.

Due to the timing limitations on the existing fiscal year 2008 foreign assistance budget and the appropriations process already underway, the president wisely asked for $500 million in the supplemental request. This will be part of an expected $1.4 billion multiyear program to fund this vital effort for greater security cooperation with Mexico. An additional $50 million was requested to assist Central America, also a major transit zone for illicit drugs.

We all face the same challenges and threats, whether it's Guatemala, Mexico, or right here in our own side of the border. The challenge is one of shared responsibility by all of the nations in this deadly chain.

I'm hopeful that Congress will act on the president's request in a timely and constructive manner. The request comes at a unique time, when the transit zone efforts in Central America and the greater -- the whole area of Central America, but specifically Mexico, are all starting to pay big dividends, particularly on the deadly cocaine front.

Mexico had a recent record seizure of more than 20 tons of cocaine, worth $2.7 billion by some estimates.

This shipment headed to here, to the U.S., from Colombia through Mexico in a Hong Kong-flagged ship shows that Mexico is serious about tackling this challenge. It also makes the point that we need a source-nation strategy in places like Colombia and aggressive interdiction all along the way here.

We should not be cutting Plan Colombia now either. I know for the record that in the second quarter of this year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy found that along with falling purity levels, there was a 44 percent increase in the retail price of cocaine and major shortages of it were found in 37 cities across our nation. All of these factors make the deadly drug less attractive to young people.

The blame game and the finger pointing which have hindered cooperation between our two countries over the issue of narcotics has hopefully ended with the unveiling of this initiative. We must prepare to fight an unprecedented new wave of related violence. The interests of both countries are well-served by our joint efforts to curb the drug violence together. It threatens not only Mexico's economic well-being and its democratic institutions but our own nation's security and the well-being of our young people.

The challenges ahead are significant on both sides of the border, in particular the issue of corruption that so often flows from the deadly and lucrative drug and organized crime business. Much needs to be done and sooner rather than later. The administration ought to consider assigning a senior official to administer this initiative, someone skilled in the handling of such a large, complex, counternarcotics, multi-agency aid package that involves aircraft and maintenance of planes and helicopters with the Mexican military. We are likely to get only one chance to get this right, to make this joint drug fighting effort work, and we've got to make sure that we get it right.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for calling this hearing. And I look forward to the panelists today. Thank you.


REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman.

And obviously we're all entitled to our own opinions, but Mexico is not a drug cartel. And to say that it is is an insult to the Mexican people and to President Calderon's administration, which has made fighting the drug cartels and confronting drug violence priorities.

Secretary Shannon, we have always had a very modest counternarcotics assistance program with Mexico. Now you're proposing, as we hear, a $1.4 billion effort over the next two years. What are you planning to do to beef up both the staff and the senior level of those who will be handling this larger, more important effort than we had in the past, both in Mexico City and here at the Bureau on International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, INL, which will be managing this account.

And related to that, Ambassador Johnson, are you open to appointing, as I said in my opening statement, a senior-level coordinator for this program who has experience with major counternarcotics assistance programs and managing their assets and parts and training programs as will be the case here?


MR. SHANNON: Thank you very much. I'll respond to the first part of the question and then turn to my colleague for additional comment.

The $550 million that we are requesting both for Mexico and Central America, of course, would come to an -- (inaudible) -- account, and the vast majority would be managed by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. And Ambassador Johnson is well-placed to discuss the typical administrative requirements that would be used to manage a package of this size.

I would note, however, that you began by indicating the relatively modest levels of assistance previously and the higher levels now. This is different. This delta between previous assistance levels and current assistance levels really underscore a fundamental change in how Mexico approaches this problem and how Central America approaches this problem and a willingness to work with us in ways that historically they have been unable or unwilling to do. And this, again, underscores for us the urgency and emergency nature of this since Mexico is prepared to cooperate with us and work with us in a way that it has not done so in the past.

But I'll turn to Ambassador Johnson to discuss the management requirements.

MR. JOHNSON: Thank you, Congresswoman.

The program, as proposed to the Congress, includes approximately $37 million in order to provide program support, management and oversight. While it's impossible to say exactly how many individuals might be required, given the fact that we do not have yet an appropriation and the package is not finally determined as to what its contours would be, my estimate is that at this point it would require a minimum of about 50 individuals in Washington, Mexico and in Central America in addition to the people that we already have on the ground there in order to provide the kind of oversight to a program of this size and scope and character. The question of how best to do this I think is something I'd like to give further thought to as to whether the way the program eventually emerges is best managed by someone who is kind of a single individual, if you will, or the issues that we're dealing with will be distributed in such a way that the individual agencies working with them will be better placed to do them. But if I could get back to you on that I would appreciate it.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you. Following up on the issues that many members have raised about the non-consultation with Congress, and they have rightfully addressed that issue, I wanted you to state for the record if you had waited for fiscal year '09 for this budget appropriations request time, how much time would we have lost in preventing drugs from entering our cities and schools?

MR. JOHNSON: I believe that we would have lost the time that the Calderon administration needs in order to be successful in this fight. This is why we chose to use a supplemental request and to define this as an emergency. Because of the nature of the fight that's taking place in Mexico right now, this year alone over 250 Mexican law enforcement and military officials have been killed in the fight against organized crime. And we estimate that violence, especially in the northern part of Mexico, has claimed upwards of 2,000 lives in total. This really is a conflict, a war between a democratic state and a neighbor and organized crime.

And again, the effort that President Calderon has made, the commitment he has made is unprecedented. Never before has a president committed Mexico's military to help and assist police in this kind of battle. And never before has a Mexican president approached the United States in the manner that President Calderon has to make the request for assistance that he has.

We need to understand this and I believe respect it for the outreach that it is and respond in a timely fashion. And it was our assessment that unless we responded quickly and effectively that Mexico was in grave danger.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Secretary Johnson -- thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the time.

For nearly nine months, since January in fact, the committee staff members have been trying to get a very small training project, $80,000 OAS training project on the culture of lawfulness program going at the new International Law Enforcement Academy, ILEA, in El Salvador, which could help in Central America and Mexico with the corruption and crime issue. How can you assure us that we can do a better job with $550 million more in monies for these areas of corruption fighting? And what is the status of this small $80,000 fund that you've provided to OAS for this effort?

MR. JOHNSON: Thank you, Congresswoman.

We, too, are frustrated by the amount of time that's elapsed as we've worked on this program. We originally envisioned to providing this funding through the OAS as a means of speeding it up only to discover that their own internal procedures for such a program which had only one bidder required them to go through some additional procedures. We are told now that this program will be on the ILEA program for the forthcoming year. And I'll remain in touch with you and make sure that you know exactly when it takes place.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Very interested in that project. Thank you.

MR. JOHNSON: Thank you.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: And one last question for both of the gentlemen, thank you. What impact will this initiative have on the Caribbean? Often we use the analogy of a balloon where you squeeze it in one area and then it just goes to the other area. Will we be squeezing the drug trafficking in Central America so that then it just shifts from one area, Central America, to the Caribbean? And as a south Floridian, that's of great concern to me. Please tell us on the impact of this initiative on the Caribbean nation.

MR. SHANNON: An excellent question and one that we are addressing with our Caribbean colleagues. As you know, earlier this year, the president and Secretary Rice hosted a conference on the Caribbean with the heads of government and foreign ministers of the Caribbean to discuss a variety of issues. But chief among them was security in the region. And we have established a security dialogue with CARICOM countries to take a deeper look at what we can do to enhance our security cooperation, not only in terms of drug trafficking and organized crime but also terrorism. And we've had an opportunity to work with them very closely in the run-up to the World Cricket Cup which I believe produced some very important results in terms of security cooperation. But these conversations continue. We do have security programs in the region through our Third Border Initiative.

But also in regard to Chairman Engel's concerns about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Rum Punch was a success. We do want to continue these kind of operations. We recognize that they do protect Haiti and the Dominican Republic from drug traffickers. Also in the course of renewing the new stuff, we were able to incorporate a maritime interdiction aspect for -- (inaudible). And we'll be working with the U.N. in this regard.

But I would also note that as we address the struggle against organized crime and drug trafficking in the region, not only will we have to improve our cooperation with Caribbean countries, but we're also going to have to take a very close look at Venezuela. Right now, nearly all the drugs that are moving through the Caribbean transit through Venezuela at this point in time. We have approached the government of Venezuela, indicated a willingness to enhance our drug cooperation. We have negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the government of Venezuela to improve the activity of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other U.S. agencies in Venezuela. But at this point in time, the government of Venezuela, the agreement as negotiated, still has not signed it. So we will continue to work in an effort to involve Venezuela in a larger Caribbean drug initiative.

MR. JOHNSON: Just a couple of quick points. First of all, in terms of the assistance that we've provided for the Caribbean, we've provided more than $10 million to CARICOM since FY '05 in direct security assistance. We're going to be augmenting our staff in the Dominican Republic this year in order to oversee our programs there. And I would also underscore what Mr. Shannon said about Venezuela which has proven to be a challenge, not just through the Caribbean but also into Africa and vectored into Europe.

Thank you.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you. Thank you to the panelists, and thank you to the chairman for giving me so much time.


REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you very much, Chairman Engel.

And following up on the corruption issue, but this time at another level, there will be hopefully a limited number of contractors in Mexico that we can use for this project. What are we doing to ensure that those contractors are held to a high level of personal conduct, high standards, high integrity, and do nothing to sour this new level of critical cooperation between us and Mexico on the illicit drug front? Ambassador Johnson, maybe you would be better to address that.

MR. JOHNSON: Madame Congressman, as you point out, we will be using the private sector of the United States capabilities in order to implement significant parts of these programs, not all of them, but particularly those associated with the aviation component.

It's our intention to work with the overall contractor to ensure that the types of standards that you point out are adhered to. The last thing that we would want to happen in order for this program to be affected adversely is for something to occur in terms of personal comportment which would overshadow the types of effort that we have underway. And the funding that we are requesting here is significant for contractor oversight, and it will include how people behave and how they comport themselves, how they carry out their missions, so that we actually achieve what we're trying to do.



MR. SHANNON: Madame -- (inaudible) -- if I could just add briefly, as we envision it, we will not use contractors in Mexico for operational purposes. Contractors, either in the United States or in Mexico, will be used for training purposes. All law enforcement activities and other operations, formal operations with the Mexico government, would be done by Mexicans.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you so much.

And Secretary Shannon, an editorial in last Friday's International Herald-Tribune applauded this Mexico-U.S. cooperation in fighting drug cartels, but also asserted, and I'll quote, "The Bush administration's $1.4 billion counternarcotics aid package falls far short of what is needed to truly confront the problem," end quote.

Do you believe that the levels proposed by the administration are adequate to address this issue?

MR. SHANNON: They're adequate for the moment, ma'am. However, we have to recognize that this is not only our fight. It's also the fight of Mexico. And the Mexicans are putting significant resources behind it. This year alone, President Calderon has identified $2.5 billion that it is using with his security services to fight organized crime, which is a 24 percent increase over the previous year.

But they're also conducting this fight not just with money, but also with personnel. And I highlighted earlier the 250 Mexican officials that have already been killed this year in the course of this fight.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you very much.


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