Fight Drug Crimes And Ensure Justice, Accountability

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Robert Menendez

The need for international cooperation to crack down on drug cartels is beyond question. Just a few weeks ago, gunmen killed Mexico Chief of Police Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez in his home. In a single week, more than 100 people, including about 20 police officers, were killed in drug-related violence. Some of those suspected of having a hand in these crimes are police officers themselves, moonlighting for the cartels.

On May 22, the U.S. Senate approved $450 million for the first tranche of a $1.4 billion, three-year program the administration has called the Merida Initiative, a public security partnership between the United States and Mexico and the Central American countries to combat drug trafficking and related violence and organized crime. In the coming days, Congress will finalize the package as part of the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill. The program includes intelligence sharing, dramatically higher funding for law enforcement and some support for judicial institutions and civil society.

Critics have chosen to interpret Congress's actions as ''sending the wrong signal'' to our neighbors. In Mexico, some have even suggested that any strings on U.S. taxpayer aid would be an unacceptable ''infringement of sovereignty.'' Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made a welcome gesture in reaching out to the United States for our help, but we reject the false choice of either ''abandoning Mexico'' or funding the administration's plan with a blank check.

Getting the Merida Initiative right starts with recognizing where it falls short.

• First, while President Bush would provide more than 90 percent of the funds to Mexico -- a ten-fold increase over the current level -- the problems of transnational drug trafficking and organized crime are regional. We have already seen the so-called ''balloon effect'' as cartels in Mexico have moved south to Guatemala.

• Second, law enforcement training and hardware, which would receive the overwhelming bulk of U.S. funds, are incapable by themselves of solving these problems in the long term. Any effective strategy must also address the structural and societal causes that have allowed drug trafficking, violent crime and corruption to flourish in Mexico and Central America. We recognize that the region needs properly trained and equipped police forces. But civilian justice authorities and public institutions are the primary instruments to solve these problems over time. For far too long, members of the security forces of these countries have violated human rights with impunity, further fueling a breakdown in law and order.

• Third, drug trafficking is an issue of supply and demand. We all know that the United States is a principle market for illegal drugs and that weapons from the United States end up in the hands of the cartels in the region. Therefore, to make Merida work, we need to reduce the violence and the trafficking, but we need to also focus on our side of the border as well.

While the Senate strives to address other competing needs such as humanitarian aid for the people of Burma, Iraq and Africa, we will provide hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars for the Merida Initiative. Not only is this the majority of what the president requested, but we will also expand the initiative to include Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as investments for economic and social development in Central America. [The House passed its version of the Merida Initiative on Tuesday by a vote of 311 to 106.]

Congress is not going to ''abandon'' Mexico. Instead, we want to help shape the Merida package to put the rule of law, human rights and accountability at the forefront. We also need criteria for measuring progress. As we have learned from previous failed strategies to combat drugs, unless we address the widespread poverty that engulfs these countries, this effort will fail.

No one supports the goals of the Merida Initiative more than we do. Cracking down on drug trafficking and violence -- and building closer relations with Mexico and Central America in the process -- are as important to Americans as they are to our southern neighbors. But to succeed, we must work together to craft short- and long-term solutions that meet our mutual security needs while building the institutions of justice that are so crucial for long-term success.

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Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is chairman of the Subcommittee on International Development and Foreign Assistance. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee.