MEXICO CITY - The Obama administration wants to shift U.S. aid in Mexico away from high-priced helicopters and airplanes and toward reforming Mexico's corrupt law enforcement, courts, and politicians.
Marking a dramatic change from past years, most of the $310 million that the Obama administration seeks for Mexico in its 2011 budget request is aimed at judicial reforms and good-governance programs in Mexico.
"We are moving away from big ticket equipment" and toward programs that support "Mexican capacity to sustain adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen in testimony prepared for a congressional subcommittee hearing Thursday.
"The starkest shift is in how funding will be spent," said Shannon O'Neil of the Council of Foreign Relations, also in testimony prepared for the hearings.
While the administration has previously talked about emphasizing institution-building and prevention instead of law enforcement in the fight against drugs, State Department budgets obtained by the Associated Press show that funding has remained almost entirely devoted to law enforcement.
The proposals being unveiled Thursday indicated a fundamental shift in the way the United States has waged its war on drugs for four decades.
The changes are not going to be easy, nor direct.
"Successful programs focused on building institutions and economic opportunity are much harder to deliver than helicopters or boats," O'Neil said. "But they also hold more promise for long-term solutions, as they recognize the complicated realities of Mexico's drug war and the limitations of military hardware in changing the tide."
Mexico's foreign relations secretary, Patricia Espinosa, said Tuesday that changes - and a commitment to continue working together - were welcome.
"Because of the characteristics of the phenomenon of organized crime, we cannot think that the problems will end after just two or three years of cooperation," she said.
Espinosa said U.S. aid may be directed specifically to social programs in Ciudad Juarez, a city of one million bordering El Paso, Texas, where drug-cartel violence killed more than 2,600 people last year, making it one of the most violent places in the world.
Thousands of Mexican soldiers and federal police have failed to ease crime there, prompting President Felipe Calderon to announce a new approach that would involve jobs, education, and other community support.
Espinosa said Mexico would like to see U.S. programs involved "as part of the comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem of transnational organized crime."
Until 2007, the United States had been spending about $50 million in aid to Mexico each year. But that year, Calderon, Mexico's newly elected president, vowed to crack down on powerful drug cartels, and President George W. Bush said he would help.
Thus the Merida Initiative began with a $500 million grant that Bush said would buy and maintain six helicopters and two airplanes for the United States' neighbors to the south. Within months, the State Department said the grants and training fund had almost tripled, to $1.4 billion, in a three-year package.