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Gates: Counterdrug Partnership Big Step in Building U.S.-Mexican Ties

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MEXICO CITY, April 30, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ visit here yesterday, the first in 12 years for a U.S. defense secretary, focused heavily on a counterdrug partnership aimed at helping Mexico’s fight against drug cartels and other transnational threats.

Gates told reporters last night that his “very cordial, very open talks” with Gen. Guillermo Galvan, Mexico’s defense secretary, Secretary of Government Juan Mourino and Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa concentrated on the merits of the “Merida Initiative.”

President Bush proposed the plan, which would channel $1.4 billion to Mexico over several years to confront cartels and other criminal organizations, after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in October in Merida, Mexico.

Bush requested an initial $500 million for equipment such as helicopters and surveillance aircraft to support the Mexican military’s drug-interdiction activities. While conceding that the initiative has no link to wartime operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said funding for it was included in the fiscal 2008 supplemental request to secure the money quickly.

Because Mexico is “clearly interested in building the civil side of this struggle,” the next $450 million of Merida Initiative funding would go toward increasing civilian law enforcement and security agency capabilities, Gates said. That money is included in the fiscal 2009 budget request.

Although the State Department will manage the program, the Defense Department would train and support the forces involved.

Gates expressed confidence that the initiative will win congressional support and hope that the first of the funds will be approved by Memorial Day.

“I think it is very important for the United States Congress to fund the Merida Initiative,” he said. “Mexico is one of our two closest neighbors. We have a shared concern and a shared threat in the drug cartels. It is in the United States’ interest to enhance Mexico’s ability to deal with these cartels, and this is, in my view, a wise investment of American money.”

Failure of Congress to approve the funding “would be a real slap at Mexico,” the secretary said. “It would be very disappointing, and it clearly would make it more difficult for us to help the Mexican armed forces and their civilian agencies deal with this difficult problem,” he said.

Gates applauded Mexico’s ongoing counterdrug efforts, and emphasized that, while the United States wants to help Mexico, it has no intention of overstepping its bounds.

“The focus there is enabling Mexico to go after the cartels. There aren’t going to be any U.S. combat troops or anybody like that down here as part of this,” Gates emphasized. “This is a challenge that Mexico has taken on, and we … will do what we can to support it.”

The United States will take the lead from the Mexican government to determine what support it needs, he said.

Ultimately, helping Mexico helps the United States, Gates said. “It is in our interest that our friends have greater capabilities to protect their own security and to take care of transnational criminal activity such as the drug cartels,” he said. “It is in our interest, because we have shared interest, to enhance the capabilities of the Mexican armed forces.”

Gates called the effort a move forward in strengthening the “still relatively young” U.S.-Mexican military relationship in a way that respects Mexico’s sovereignty and recognizes Mexican sensitivities. “I would say that the relationship is limited, but both sides are looking for opportunities where we can cautiously grow it,” he said.

More educational exchanges and expanded information sharing are two potential growth areas Gates said he and the Mexican leaders discussed today. “We just have to take it a step at a time and explore what the opportunities are for expanded cooperation,” he said.

Gates said he was surprised to learn that he was the first defense secretary to visit here in 12 years and “doubly surprised” that the visit was the second ever by a U.S. defense secretary.

A senior defense official traveling with Gates called the visit another step forward in the two countries’ evolving and increasingly cooperative relationship. “This is an unprecedented opportunity to continue our pattern of engagement,” he said. “We are at the beginning phases of building a more elaborate system of cooperation with the Mexican military, and we are still trying to figure out what they would like us to do.”

Gates is slated to lay a wreath today at the 201 Fighter Squadron Memorial that honors the Mexican squadron that fought with the United States during World War II.

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Biographies:
Robert M. Gates

Related Sites:
Merida Initiative
U.S. State Department background note on Mexico

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