05.21.08

On The Merida Initiative Congressional Record

MR. LEAHY.  The Fiscal Year 2008 supplemental appropriations bill provides $450 million for the Merida Initiative, including $350 million for Mexico and $100 million for Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  This is the first installment of an ongoing commitment to help our neighbors to the south respond to the growing violence and corruption of heavily armed drug cartels.  It represents a ten-fold increase in assistance for Mexico in a single year. 

The Merida Initiative is a partnership, and we recognize that achieving its goals presents an extraordinarily difficult challenge.  The United States is the principal market for most of the illegal drugs coming from Mexico and Central America.  We are also the source of most of the guns used by the Mexican and Central American cartels.  Each country contributes to this problem, and we each have to be part of the solution. 

President Calderon and President Bush deserve credit for the Merida Initiative.  Better and more-cooperative relations between our countries are long overdue.

It is unfortunate, however, that neither the Mexican or Central American legislatures, nor the U.S. Congress, nor representatives of civil society, had a role in shaping the Merida Initiative.  There was no refinement through consultation.  I first learned of it from the press, as did other Members of Congress.

As we have come to expect from this Administration, the White House reached a secret agreement with foreign governments calling for hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, and then came to Congress demanding a blank check. 

I support the goals of the Merida Initiative, and this bill provides a very generous down payment on what I believe will be a far longer commitment than the three-year initiative proposed by the Administration.  It will take longer than one year just to obligate and expend the $350 million for Mexico in this supplemental bill, and the President has requested another $477 million for Mexico in Fiscal Year 2009.

In addition to appropriating the funds, most of which may be obligated immediately, we require the Secretary of State to determine and report that procedures are in place and actions are taken by the Mexican and Central American governments to ensure that recipients of our aid are not involved in corruption or human rights violations, and that members of the military and police forces who commit violations are brought to justice.

This is fundamental.  For years we have trained Mexican and Central American police forces, and it is well known that some of them have ended up working for the drug cartels.  It is common knowledge that corruption is rampant within their law enforcement institutions – the very entities we are about to support. 

It is also beyond dispute that Mexican and Central American military and police forces have a long history of human rights violations – including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and extra-judicial killings – for which they have rarely been held accountable.  Examples of army and police officers who have been prosecuted and punished for these heinous crimes are few and far between.  Mexican human rights defenders who criticize the military for violating human rights fear for their lives.

Some, particularly the Mexican press, argue that conditioning our aid on adherence to the rule of law is somehow an “infringement of sovereignty,” “subjugation” or “meddling,” or that it “sends the wrong message.”  I strongly disagree.  

Since when is it bad policy, or an infringement of anything, to insist that American taxpayer dollars not be given to corrupt, abusive police or military forces in a country whose justice system has serious flaws and rarely punishes official misconduct?  This is a partnership, not a giveaway.  As one who has criticized my own government for failing to uphold U.S. and international law, as has occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, I believe it is our duty to insist on respect for fundamental principles of justice.  I am confident that the Mexican and American people agree.

Mr. President, like Senators Dodd, Reid, Menendez and many others here, both Democrats and Republicans, I have long urged closer relations with Mexico.  We have much in common, yet throughout our history U.S. policy toward Mexico has been far more one of neglect than of mutual respect and cooperation. 

Whether it is trade and investment, immigration, the environment, health, science, cultural and academic exchange, human rights, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and other cross border crime and violence – our contiguous countries are linked in numerous ways.  We should work to deepen and expand our relations.  

The Merida Initiative is one approach, and while I and many others would prefer that it encompassed broader forms of engagement, it is a start.  Most of the funds are for law enforcement hardware and software, which is necessary but insufficient to support a sustainable strategy.  As we have learned from successive costly counter-drug strategies in the Andean countries that have failed to effectively reduce the amount of cocaine entering the United States, we need to know what the Merida Initiative can reasonably expect to achieve, at what cost, over what period of time. 

Senator Gregg as Ranking Member, and I as Chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, had to make difficult choices among many competing demands within a limited budget.  We had to find additional funds to help disaster victims in Burma, Central Africa, Bangladesh and elsewhere, who the President’s budget ignored.  We had to find additional funds for Iraqi refugees and for crucial peacekeeping, security and nonproliferation programs.  We could not have funded virtually any program at the level requested by the President without causing disproportionate harm to others, and we sought to avoid that.   

Considering the amount we had to spend, the Merida Initiative received strong, bipartisan support.  Again, this is not simply a three year program as the Administration suggests.  It is the beginning of a new kind of relationship and we need to start off prudently and with solid footing. 

That means the direct participation of the Congress and of civil society, and attention to legitimate concerns about human rights, about monitoring and oversight, about rights of privacy, due process, and accountability.  How these issues are resolved is critical to future funding for this program, and we need to work together to address them.  

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