06/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congress Sends Drug War South, Taxpayer Money to Defense Firms

Just when the Obama administration showed signs of rethinking the disastrous "war on drugs" at home, Congress decided to export it big-time to Mexico. On foreign land, this monument to wrong-headed policy takes a particularly bloody and bellicose form.

A little-known measure buried in the U.S. 2009 Supplemental Bill would provide millions of dollars to corrupt Mexican security forces engaged in an unwinnable drug war. Disguised as a way of "helping" our beleaguered neighbor, the measure goes beyond even what the Bush administration planned. The aid package will push Mexico closer to a Colombia scenario and create a new quagmire to suck up scarce U.S. public resources.

The House version of the supplemental delivers an extra $470 million to Mexican security forces. Of that, $310 million goes directly to the Mexican armed forces. This comes on top of $700 million already provided for in the Merida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, to fund Mexican military, police, intelligence agencies and judicial reform in 2008 and 2009.

What is incomprehensible is that Congress has inserted this pork barrel at a time when the U.S. economy is reeling and its top priority for scarce resources is supposedly to stimulate a flagging U.S. economy that is spitting out workers at a record rate.

And the proposal ignores a pressure pot of problems in Mexico related to multiple crises in the economy, growing poverty, healthcare, governance and employment.

This crisis should be more than obvious to legislators. The swine flu epidemic shaved off an additional 0.3% to 1% of Mexico's projected GDP for 2009. The Mexican central bank now estimates that the economy will shrink around 5%, with some private estimates running much higher.

USAID reports its aid to Mexico at a paltry $28.9 million annually. Development aid is practically non-existent, even though 43% of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank's conservative estimates.

The course mapped for one of the United States' most important allies reduces Mexico and its people to the gangster duels being played out in its streets. Worse yet, it casts any real effort to build long-term security for the region under the cold shadow of expensive surveillance planes and fighter helicopters.

The State Department seems to have taken a backseat to the defense interests in both government and the private sector that plan to steer the new security-driven bilateral relationship.

Moving in the Wrong Direction
Many voices have warned against this "uni-dimensional" approach. Mexican human rights organizations called for halt to military funding in light of a sixfold increase in human rights violations by the Mexican military. The decision, just days later, to beef up military-to-military support made a mockery of their concerns.

Washington human rights organizations that tried to temper the original Merida Initiative aid package by supporting unfulfilled human rights conditions have also been steamrollered by the stealthy new funding measure. The current appropriations bill not only supplies more military support, it completely eliminates human rights conditions in the name of the war on drugs.

In a blatant contradiction, just days before the megadose of drug war money to Mexico, Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the Wall Street Journal that it was time to end the war on drugs.

"Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country."

Although Kerlikowske said he hadn't focused yet on the U.S. -funded drug war abroad, in Mexico the "war on the people" aspect of the strategy has resulted in 1,230 complaints against the military to the Human Rights Commission, including executions, rapes and torture last year alone. As violence between rival drug cartels and between the cartels and the security forces increases, Mexican citizens often get trapped in the crossfire.

The Senate version of Plan Mexico Plus at least shows it has heard these voices. Compared to the bloated House version, it authorizes the more austere figure of $66 million to purchase three Black Hawk helicopters.

The Senate committee is explicit about the reasons:

"The Committee notes that the Government of Mexico has not yet met the requirements for obligation of 15 percent of the assistance previously appropriated for Mexico under the Merida Initiative for fiscal years 2008 and 2009, relating to transparency, accountability and human rights. The Committee remains concerned that the Merida Initiative represents a one-dimensional approach to drug-trafficking and gang violence in Mexico and Central America, and that a more comprehensive strategy is needed that also addresses the underlying causes."

The bill must now go to a conference committee to resolve the differences.

Military Pork Ears

In a time of scarce resources and rampant unemployment in the United States, why is the U.S. government throwing money at the Mexican military?

The House version weighs in heavily on Foreign Military Financing, providing $310 million in non-cash support directly to the mexican armed forces. This includes three CASA 235 surveillance planes, at $50 million each, including the maintenance contract. It also contains an unspecified number of HH-60 Pave Hawks, a variation on the UH-60 Black Hawks in the Foreign Military Financing, and three UH-60S in the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement section, presumably for the Secretary of Public Security, as specified in the administration's request.

The story of the helicopters provides important clues as to why military aid to Mexico's drug war keeps growing, despite scarce funds and negative results.

The original Bush three-year Merida Initiative called for eight Bell BH-412 helicopters for the Mexican Army and Navy. Funding for five BH-412s was included in the 2008 Merida Initiative spending plan.

But since then the Mexican government has complained bitterly that the helicopters have been held up by Washington infighting on who gets the juicy contracts. A Washington Post article cited U.S. officials who attributed the delays to "cumbersome U.S. government contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies." At last report, the helicopters still have not been delivered.

Then on her visit to Mexico on Mar, 25 Sec. of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. government would be providing $80 million for "urgently needed" Black Hawk helicopters. First it was unclear whether this would be a Bells-for-Black Hawks switcheroo already funded in the Merida Initiative or would require new appropriations. When it became clear that fresh financing would be proposed to Congress, it was unclear why the U.S. government was adding the Sikorsky Black Hawks when it still hadn't been able to deliver the Bells.

Bell Helicopter is headquartered in former president Bush's home state of Texas. Black Hawks are made by Sikorsky, in turn owned by United Technologies Corporation (UTC), a giant defense conglomerate. UTC is located in Hartford, Connecticut. Connecticut is the state of Senator Joe Lieberman, Chair of the Homeland Security Committee and senior member of the Armed Services Committee and a prominent hawk in Congress, and Sen. Christopher Dodd who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Another possible reason for the choice of the Bell is that it is technically listed as a commercial rather than a military aircraft. The Black Hawks on the other hand can be and usually are armed. The HH-60 Pave Hawk of the Sikorsky group that is included in the Plan Mexico Plus appropriations has been used in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations (see video). As Narco News reports, similar aircraft have been used in attacks on villages in Colombia.

It's a safe bet that Sikorsky was not happy about being left out of what industry experts are beginning to identify as the latest emerging market for U.S. military equipment and services. It wouldn't be the first time that the rivalry between the two companies has delayed delivery of equipment and sparked internal debates in Washington either.

In an article called "The Helicopter War", the Center for Public Integrity reported on a similar spat under Plan Colombia. As the Bells and Black Hawks belted it out for contracts, hundreds of thousands of lobbying dollars poured into Washington from the two companies and the respective Congressmen went on the offensive, cultivating relations with the Colombian government and pressuring in Congress. CPI reports:

"On June 21, 2000, Dodd introduced an amendment on the Senate floor on behalf of himself and Lieberman that would have given the Pentagon, in consultation with the Colombian military, the right to determine what the 'most effective' aircraft would be for Colombian drug-fighting. The amendment, an apparent effort to foil Texas legislators' efforts to push sales of the Huey to Colombia, failed, but the Black Hawks, which had been written out of Plan Colombia, went back into the final package."

UTC spent a reported $18 million dollars lobbying over the four-year period from 1996-2004 and Bell, a Textron company, spent over ten million.

Like Plan Mexico now, in the Colombia helicopter war the end result was more taxpayer money for more helicopters to keep both companies and their state's representatives happy. And like Plan Mexico now, they had to ride roughshod over human rights requirements to do it since when the helicopter sales began in earnest in 1996 Colombia was decertified.

Lieberman has long been a champion of racheting up the U.S. defense budget with a special eye to Connecticut's defense industry. Dodd, although more dovish on defense spending, has supported both Plan Colombia and now Plan Mexico. According to the Center for Responsive Government, Lieberman received $189,000 from United Technologies in 2006 Senate race. Dodd received $62,150 from UTC in 2004. UTC was also the top contributor to House caucus chair John Larson (CN) in 2007-2008. UTC garnered $7.7 billion dollars in U.S. sales in 2008 alone, according to its website.

Lieberman not surprisingly has been in the forefront of the effort to redefine Mexico as a threat to U.S. national security and perpetuate the war model for dealing with the transnational illegal drug trade. In March he held hearings on violence on the southern border, calling for more aid to the Mexican government and stating "Ideally, we can eliminate the threats and provide the Mexican government with the support it needs to win this war against the drug cartels and other dangerous actors who threaten our national security.

In this case, the earmark for Black Hawk in the supplemental funding for Mexican security forces is as obvious as a Tyson bite. But the lack of details on the multiple funding proposals for Mexico's drug war also open up the door for what are called "black earmarks" whose origins and specific details are even less transparent. A Mar. 25 McClatchy newspaper report details some of the boondoggles that have occurred through secret earmarks for favored companies, including Sikorsky, in the past.

These battles for contracts fuel military spending that in turn fuels Mexico's drug war. Legislators-cum-defense-lobbyists can be credited with pouring gas on a fire in Mexico, and hitting up U.S. taxpayers for the gas money.

The $470 million included for Plan Mexico may seem like a drop in the bucket in a spending bill of over eighty billion. But more than the money, the bill makes a statement that the U.S. government has little concern for human rights in Mexico and that in the Bush security doctrine and defense interests continue to control much of its foreign policy--even with an allied neighbor.