San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Plan Merida’ Cash May Aid C.R.

If U.S. President George W. Bush has his way, Costa Rica could soon be seeing a share of $50 million in new law-enforcement aid.

The money would be part of what is being called “Plan Merida,” named after the Mexican city in the Yucatan Peninsula, a multiyear $1.1 billion law-enforcement package focusing mostly on drug trafficking and Mexico.

Mexico, especially in its northern border towns, has erupted into virtual war between the military, police and drug cartels.

Bush administration officials, who announced the plan in October without consulting Congress, prefer to call the package the Merida Initiative, to avoid any comparison to the controversial Plan Colombia.

The latter plan was first put in place by thenpresident of Colombia Andrés Pastrana and then-U.S. president Bill Clinton in 1999.

Since then, Colombia has received over $2 billion in aid targeting the drug cartels and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), according to the nonprofit Center for International Policy. The U.S. also has sent at least 800 civilian and military advisors to Colombia and 600 private contractors as a part of its drug war, an act which many countries in the region would consider a violation of their sovereignty.

Roughly $50 million of Plan Merida, which would be funded by part of a $46 billion Iraq War supplemental appropriations bill and a yet-to-be-determined 2009 budget, is scheduled to go to Central America if the corresponding bills are ratified by Congress.

That is a big “if,” considering Bush’s recent track record of getting bills, such as immigration reform, passed.

How much Costa Rica might get of the $50 million remains a mystery.

U.S. Southern Command, which coordinates security forces in Central and South America and the Caribbean, did not return phone calls requesting comment. Southern Command recently announced it would double counter-narcotics funding here from $1 million to $2 million this year, with the hope to increase it to $4 million in 2009.

Roger Atwood, spokesman for the Washington Office on Latin America, a privately funded human-rights group, said Costa Rica is likely to get a token share of the $50 million.

“It’s not a lot of money,” he said. “It’s mostly Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But I don’t know for sure because they haven’t presented an itemized list yet, which I presume they’re going to have to do.”

A review of congressional records related to Plan Merida showed Costa Rica mentioned just twice – once negatively and once positively.

The positive mention was for a joint Tico-Nicaraguan police operation in Nicaragua in November that seized 250 kilograms of cocaine.

On the negative side, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Intelligence Chief Anthony Placido said Costa Rica was the only country in Central America that did not allow special investigative units to operate. These units “form the backbone of DEA’s efforts throughout the region,” Placido said.

Several U.S. members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have expressed their disdain for Plan Merida.

In November, Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, grilled Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon as he testified on behalf of the plan.

“You had nine months of negotiations with the Mexicans and you did not approach the appropriate congressional committees at all,” Lantos said.

After Shannon responded that the administration wanted to construct a “serious and credible” package, Lantos took offense and lit into the official.

“Do you think a serious and credible package could not be put together with consultation of the Congress?” Lantos asked. “It is an outrage.”


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