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U.S. tardy in aiding Mexico's drug war

Little of the $1.1 billion promised in 2007 for an "immediate impact" has been spent.

MEXICO CITY - The United States has spent a fraction of the $1.1 billion it promised Mexico between 2008 and 2010 to make "an immediate and important impact" on drug-cartel violence, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

While President Obama and Congress pledged strong support to Mexican President Felipe Calderón in Washington this week, State Department spreadsheets provide the first definitive information about how the United States has - and hasn't - spent the money pledged by President George W. Bush under the so-called Merida Initiative in 2007.

The records show that in the third year of what was to be a three-year program, Washington is just starting to help Mexico fund its bloody antidrug battle.

After bureaucratic tie-ups limited spending to $26 million in the first two years, cash began to flow this year, with $235 million projected by year's end, and at least $331 million expected in 2011.

"The leaders of the Mexican military made the point [that] the house is on fire now," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently after meeting with military counterparts in Mexico. "Having the fire trucks show up in 2012 is not going to be particularly helpful."

In Washington on Thursday, Calderón asked Congress for "more cooperation" and noted that his own government is sinking $10 billion a year into the battle.

"My neighbor is the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and everyone wants to sell drugs through my window," he said, urging Washington to do more.

Obama pledged to expedite delivery of helicopters and to try to get the funds moving. State Department officials, responding to queries about the spending, said they hope to fund an additional $50 million for training this year.

It was a tropical spring day in colonial Merida three years ago when Bush and Calderón slapped backs and announced unspecified intentions to "increase cooperation."

Since then, 23,000 people have been killed in Calderon's battle against the cartels as Mexico waited for U.S. funds.

Obama has agreed to extend Merida at least one more year under a program called "Beyond Merida." But it's doubtful top government officials on either side realize how little has been done.

Administration leaders often talk about how the U.S. has sent $1 billion to help Mexico.

Calderón told reporters this week: "We have received about $400 million."

In fact, it's $161 million.

That includes $66 million for five Bell helicopters, $2.7 million for four bullet-tracing devices; $2.4 million for 337 lie detector machines and $1.4 million for 13 bulletproof Suburbans.

The holdups are not political. They are bureaucratic.

Merida Initiative funds sit in three accounts, managed by more than a dozen federal agencies, each with unique budget rules.

Both countries agreed that at least initially, the bulk of the funding would go to aircraft, and buying those can be slow: six months to review bids and sign contracts, two years build an airplane with high tech requirements.

AP obtained the spending records from a State Department official pending a Freedom of Information request. A few days later, the same numbers were released in a 20-page appendix to a U.S. Senate committee report.

The nature of the spending so far underscores the Obama administration's quandary: Having acknowledged that the 40-year-old war on drugs hasn't worked, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske last week said the United States will emphasize prevention and treatment of drug abuse.

But like the $15.5 billion U.S. drug-control budget, which emphasizes prison and police funding, financial aid to Mexico - when it comes - is focused almost entirely on law enforcement.

Washington insists the numbers don't tell the full story, in part because training antidrug personnel is cheaper than airplanes. So far, about a tenth of the money spent has been for training 15,000 Mexicans.