House and Senate Pass New Military Aid to Mexico

  Source: Americas Program

Poor Mexico has suffered a series of hard blows lately. From elections that left a bitterly divided populace, to a blood-soaked drug war, to the economic crisis, to the swine flu epidemic, nothing seems to be going right.

Now heaped on top of all that is a little-known measure buried in the U.S. 2009 Supplemental Bill to provide millions of dollars to corrupt Mexican security forces engaged in an unwinnable drug war. Disguised as a way of "helping" our beleaguered neighbor, the measure will push Mexico closer to a Colombia scenario and create a new quagmire to suck up scarce public resources.

The House version of the supplemental passed this week delivers a whopping $470 million to Mexican security forces. Of that, $310 million goes directly to the Mexican armed forces. This comes on top of $700 million already provided for the Merida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, to fund Mexican police, military, intelligence agencies, and judicial reform in 2008 and 2009.

What is incomprehensible is that Congress has inserted this pork barrel funding at a time when the U.S. economy is reeling, while ignoring an unprecedented crisis in Mexico in the fundamental areas of poverty, healthcare, governance, and employment.

This crisis should be more than obvious to legislators. The swine flu epidemic shaved an additional 0.3-1% off of Mexico’s projected gross domestic product (GDP) for 2009. The Mexican Central Bank now estimates that the economy will
shrink around 5%, with some private estimates running much higher.

USAID reports its funding for Mexico at a paltry $28.9 million annually. Development aid from the United States is practically non-existent, even though 43% of the Mexican population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank’s conservative estimates.

Yet Congress would continue down a narrow path of military support. This wrong-headed vision reduces an entire country and its people to the gangster duels being played out in its streets. Worse yet, it casts any real effort to build long-term security for the region under the cold shadow of expensive surveillance planes and fighter helicopters.

The State Department seems to have taken a backseat to the defense interests in both government and the private sector that plan to steer the new security-driven bilateral relationship.

Moving in the Wrong Direction

Many voices have warned against such an approach. Mexican human rights organizations called for a halt to military funding in light of a six-fold increase in human rights violations by the Mexican military. Congress’s decision, just days later, to beef up military-to-military support, makes a mockery of their concerns.

Washington human rights organizations that tried to temper the original Merida Initiative aid package by supporting unfulfilled human rights conditions have also been steamrollered by the stealthy new funding measure. The current appropriations bill not only supplies more military support, it completely eliminates human rights conditions in the name of the war on drugs.

In a blatant contradiction, just days before the mega-dose of drug war money to Mexico, Obama’s drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Wall Street Journal that it was time to end the war on drugs.

"Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We’re not at war with people in this country."

Although Kerlikowske said he hadn’t focused yet on the U.S.-funded drug war abroad, last year in Mexico the "war on the people" aspect of the strategy resulted in 1,230 complaints filed against the military to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH, by its initials in Spanish). Documented cases include executions, rapes, and torture. As violence between rival drug cartels and between the cartels and the security forces increases, Mexican citizens often get trapped in the crossfire.

The Senate version of this week’s Plan Mexico Plus initiative at least shows it has heard these voices. Compared to the bloated House version, it authorizes the more austere figure of $66 million to purchase three Black Hawk helicopters.

The Senate committee is explicit about the reasons:

"The Committee notes that the Government of Mexico has not yet met the requirements for obligation of 15% of the assistance previously appropriated for Mexico under the Merida Initiative for fiscal years 2008 and 2009, relating to transparency, accountability, and human rights. The Committee remains concerned that the Merida Initiative represents a one-dimensional approach to drug-trafficking and gang violence in Mexico and Central America, and that a more comprehensive strategy is needed that also addresses the underlying causes."

The House Appropriations Committee merely says, "The Committee remains concerned with reports of corruption and human rights violations committed by some elements of federal and local police and military personnel."

It follows up this "concern" with the lame and toothless, "The Committee expects that none of these funds will be used to repress the political opposition." This is, in fact, exactly what is happening in Mexico—from raids on the Zapatista communities in Chiapas to round-ups of grassroots organizers in Chihuahua.

The bill must now go to a conference committee to resolve the differences.

Military Pork Ears

In a time of scarce resources and rampant unemployment in the United States, why is the U.S. government throwing money at the Mexican military to support a failed strategy?

The House version weighs in heavily on foreign military financing, providing $310 million in non-cash support directly to the Mexican armed forces. This includes three CASA 235 surveillance planes, at $50 million each, including maintenance contracts. It also contains an unspecified number of HH-60 Pave Hawks, a variation on the UH-60 Black Hawks in the Foreign Military Financing section, and three UH-60s in the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement section, presumably for the secretary of public security, as specified in the administration’s request.

The story of the helicopters provides important clues as to why military aid to Mexico’s drug war keeps growing, despite cutbacks in other types of U.S. foreign aid and negative results.

The original Bush three-year Merida Initiative called for eight Bell BH-412 helicopters for the Mexican Army and Navy. Funding for five BH-412s was included in the 2008 Merida Initiative spending plan.

But since then the Mexican government has complained bitterly that the helicopters have been held up by Washington infighting on who gets the juicy contracts. A Washington Post article cited U.S. officials who attributed the delays to "cumbersome U.S. government contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies." At last report, the helicopters still have not been delivered.

Then, on her visit to Mexico on Mar. 25, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. government would be providing $80 million for "urgently needed" Black Hawk helicopters. First it was unclear whether this would be a Bells-for-Black Hawks switcheroo already funded in the Merida Initiative or would require new appropriations. When it became clear that fresh financing would be proposed to Congress, it was unclear why the U.S. government was adding the Sikorsky Black Hawks when it still hadn’t been able to deliver the Bells.

When the Merida Initiative was first proposed, the administration sought to downplay links to the military and combat to facilitate passage. The Bell 412 is technically listed as a commercial rather than a military aircraft. The Black Hawks on the other hand can be, and usually are, armed. The HH-60 Pave Hawk of the Sikorsky group that is included in the Plan Mexico Plus appropriations now before Congress has been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan operations for combat operations (see video). As Narco News reports, similar aircraft have been used in attacks on villages in Colombia.

But there is a deeper reason for legislators to take sides between the rival helicopter manufacturers, and it’s the oldest one in the Washington book—bringing home the bacon. Bell Helicopter is headquartered in former President Bush’s home state of Texas. Black Hawks are made by Sikorsky, in turn owned by United Technologies Corporation (UTC), a giant defense conglomerate. UTC is located in Hartford, Connecticut. Connecticut is the state of Senator Joe Lieberman—Chair of the Homeland Security Committee, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and a prominent hawk in Congress—and Sen. Christopher Dodd who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

It’s a safe bet that Sikorsky was not happy about being left out of what industry experts are beginning to identify as the new frontier for U.S. military equipment and security services. A series of dire warnings about "spillover violence" and Mexico as a potential "failed state," most by military leaders in government, clearly target Mexico as the emerging market for boys with war toys.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the rivalry between the two companies delayed delivery of equipment and sparked internal debates in Washington.

In an article called "The Helicopter War," the Center for Public Integrity reported on a similar spat under Plan Colombia. As the Bells and Black Hawks belted it out for contracts, hundreds of thousands of lobbying dollars poured into Washington from the two companies. The respective Congressmen went on the offensive, cultivating relations with the Colombian government and pressuring Congress. CPI reports:

"On June 21, 2000, Dodd introduced an amendment on the Senate floor on behalf of himself and Lieberman that would have given the Pentagon, in consultation with the Colombian military, the right to determine what the ‘most effective’ aircraft would be for Colombian drug-fighting. The amendment, an apparent effort to foil Texas legislators’ efforts to push sales of the Huey to Colombia, failed, but the Black Hawks, which had been written out of Plan Colombia, went back into the final package."

UTC spent a reported $18 million dollars lobbying over the four-year period from 1996-2000 and Bell, a Textron company, spent over $10 million.

Like Plan Mexico now, in the Colombia helicopter war, the end result was more taxpayer money for more helicopters to keep both companies and their state’s representatives happy. And like Plan Mexico now, they had to ride roughshod over human rights requirements to do it, given that when the helicopter sales began in earnest in 1996 Colombia was decertified.

Lieberman has long been a champion of ratcheting up the U.S. defense budget with a special eye to Connecticut’s defense industry. Dodd, although more dovish on defense spending, has supported both Plan Colombia and now Plan Mexico. According to the Center for Responsive Government, Lieberman received $189,000 from United Technologies in the 2006 Senate race. Dodd received $62,150 from UTC in 2004. UTC was also the top contributor to House caucus Chair John Larson (D-CT) in 2007-2008. UTC garnered $7.7 billion dollars in sales to the U.S. government in 2008 alone, according to its website.

Lieberman not surprisingly has been in the forefront of the effort to redefine Mexico as a threat to U.S. national security and perpetuate the war model for dealing with the transnational illegal drug trade. In March he held hearings on the violence along the southern border, calling for more aid to the Mexican government and stating, "Ideally, we can eliminate the threats and provide the Mexican government with the support it needs to win this war against the drug cartels and other dangerous actors who threaten our national security."

In this case, the earmark for Black Hawk in the supplemental funding for Mexican security forces is as obvious as a Tyson bite. But the lack of details on the multiple funding proposals for Mexico’s drug war also open up the door for what are called "black earmarks," whose origins and specific details are even less transparent. A Mar. 25 McClatchy newspaper report details some of the boondoggles that have occurred through secret earmarks for favored companies, including Sikorsky, in the past.

These battles for contracts fuel military spending that in turn fuels Mexico’s drug war. Legislators-cum-defense-lobbyists can be credited with pouring gas on a fire in Mexico, and hitting up U.S. taxpayers for the gas money.

The $470 million included for Plan Mexico may seem like a drop in the bucket in a spending bill of over $80 billion. But more than the money, the bill makes a statement that the U.S. government has little concern for human rights in Mexico and that the Bush security doctrine and defense interests continue to control much of its foreign policy—even with an allied neighbor.

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a) is the Director of the Americas Program ( for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.