The murder of the acting chief of Mexico's federal police amid an unprecedented wave of drug gang attacks on security officials will soon become a major issue in the U.S. presidential candidates' escalating war for Latino votes.
Until now, Republicans and Democrats had tried to make as little noise as possible about the Bush administration's Merida Initiative, a request for $500 million to help Mexico fight its drug cartels. They hoped to pass it quietly, fearing that a high-profile debate would stir up political passions on both sides of the border and kill the proposal.
But with drug war violence in Mexico escalating to record levels in recent memory, that's changing fast.
Likely Republican candidate Sen. John McCain will probably try to cut into the Democrats' growing lead among Latinos by saying that their proposal to reduce the Merida Initiative by up to $190 million amounts to "abandoning" Mexico at a time when President Felipe Calderón's government is facing a bigger than ever attack from the drug cartels.
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It may be much like when McCain blamed Democrats for "abandoning" Colombia by resisting ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. Only that, in Mexico's case, the political stakes at home are higher because more than 65 percent of the 10 million-plus Latino voters are of Mexican origin.
When I asked the McCain campaign Friday evening for a reaction to the Democrat majority-proposed cuts to the Merida Initiative, I got a statement from McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, that sounded like the opening salvo of the coming Republican offensive.
"At a time when we have a Mexican president willing to take the fight to vicious narco-traffickers, it is appalling and irresponsible that congressional Democrats would cut funding," Shuenemann said. "This is just the latest example of Democrats undermining our allies."
Carl Meacham, a senior Republican staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that last week's killing of acting federal Police Chief Edgar Millán Gómez is "a huge thing." He added, "An escalating war is raging along the U.S. border, and many in Congress are refusing to assist a neighbor who has come for our help."
The slain police chief was the highest-ranking of about 200 officers killed by drug trafficking gangs over the past year and a half in apparent retaliation against Calderón's military offensive against the drug cartels.
According to a U.S. Senate report authored by Meacham, 2,600 Mexicans have lost their lives in police actions against drug traffickers over the past year, and the Mexican government has invested $3 billion and deployed 30,000 troops in an effort to combat the drug cartels.
The Merida aid package is aimed at helping Mexico buy eight transport helicopters, improve intelligence sharing, and reduce the massive smuggling of 50 mm rifles, grenades and other high-power U.S. weapons to Mexico. The plan does not contemplate the presence of U.S. troops in Mexico.
Most Democrats in Congress say they want to vote for aid to Mexico, but they object to what they say is an excessive focus on military aid at the expense of institution- building assistance, and they note that some anti-immigration Republican legislators are opposing the Merida Initiative.
Senate Western Hemisphere subcommittee Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut told me in an e-mail that, "We are planning to provide the Mexican government with critical financial assistance, while at the same time ensuring that we can also address various humanitarian emergencies around the world."
Friday, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers, which are backing the Democrats in the November elections, called for blocking the aid plan, citing concerns over human rights abuses.
McCain is moving increasingly closer to anti-immigration hawks in his party and leaving behind the comprehensive immigration plan he once supported to embrace a new stand that is economically stupid, politically unwise and dangerous for national security.
Now it's the Democrats' turn to be singled out for caving in to the populist-isolationist wing of their party and irresponsibly turning their backs to an escalating war against the bad guys on the U.S. border. Unless Democrats and their candidates give their full support to the initiative, they should face a backlash among some of the growing numbers of Latino voters who have flocked to the Democratic Party in recent months.
Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, E-mail: email@example.com.