US releases $214 million to aid Mexico drug fight

The US has promised a $214 million (Dh786m) aid package to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, including five helicopters for the military.

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MEXICO CITY // The US has released US$214 million (Dh786m) of an aid package to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, including funds for five helicopters for the military, a top State Department official said on Tuesday. The helicopters will be delivered by year's end the first to be sent to Mexico under the Merida Initiative, a three-year US$1.4b programme to train and equip law enforcement to deal with the ruthless cartels, said David Johnson, US assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement.

He said US$214 million of the package has been spent or committed. The funds have gone to training Mexican federal investigators and providing technology such as X-ray machines to check for contraband at border crossings. "We greatly admire the strong efforts made by the government of Mexico ... to confront the extreme rise in violence fuelled by drugs," Mr Johnson said during a visit to Mexico. Earlier this month, the US president's administration sent to Congress a favourable report on Mexico's human rights record that could allow the release of an additional US$100 million in aid. Washington has conditioned 15 per cent of the Merida Initiative on assurances that Mexico makes progress in combating corruption and rights abuses.

International rights group have urged to withhold Merida Initiative funds, saying Mexico has done little to investigate alleged abuse. But the US report defended Mexico, saying the government of president Felipe Calderón "has embarked on a major effort to reform and overhaul its justice system." Mr Johnson said the United States is helping Mexico improve its internal systems for preventing and rooting out corruption in law enforcement, including lie-detector tests and continuous checks on officials.

He also made clear the Obama administration has no intention on passing judgment on a New Mexican law that eliminates jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and even heroine, LSD and methamphetamine. "We've studiously avoided commenting on that," Mr Johnson said. "There is a clear commitment by Mexico to confronting" drug gangs "and that is what we are focused on." Mr Calderón has made fighting Mexican drug cartels, which are responsible for the vast majority of cocaine smuggled to the United States from South America, a cornerstone of his administration. He has sent tens of thousands of soldiers to drug hot spots across Mexico, and federal authorities have arrested hundreds of police officers and other officials - including top members of Calderon's own administration - for alleged ties to cartels.

However, drug gang violence surged, claiming more than 13,500 lives since Mr Calderón took office in December 2006. Drug cartels have lashed back at the crackdown, killing more than 1,000 police and soldiers. Mr Calderón defended his efforts in a report submitted to Mexico's Congress on Tuesday, insisting no other Mexican government has taken on the cartels frontally. The report said his government has seized 90 tons of cocaine, 5,000 tons of marijuana and some 50,000 illegal weapons.

It also said authorities have detained more than 80,000 people linked to organised crime, although it did not specify how many were part of the drug trade. Mexico also has a major problem with kidnapping and other criminal gangs. It has been "an effort never before seen in Mexico," the report said of the crackdown on cartels. * AP