U.S. unveils plan to help Mexico fight drug cartels

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Monday announced a $1.4 billion, multiyear initiative to help Mexico defeat powerful drug cartels whose turf wars have left several thousand dead and led President Felipe Calderón to deploy his military.

Dubbed the Merida Initiative for the Mexican city where President Bush and Calderón fleshed out the plan at a March meeting, the program is designed to redefine the way the two neighbors cooperate on security issues, U.S. officials said.

The White House said it wants Congress to immediately allocate $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America. The request was tucked into a $46 billion Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental spending bill unveiled Monday.

Reaction in Congress was guarded, with members saying they were disposed to help but needed more information.

The $500 million would be the initial installment of a two- or three-year program, officials said, and would be in addition to a sum provided by Mexico.

Mexico would get training, surveillance aircraft, Bell 412 helicopters to ferry Mexican secu- rity personnel, nonintrusive ion scanners to detect drugs, canine units and more secure commu- nications technologies, among other materials.

"The United States will do all it can to support Mexico's efforts to break the power and impunity of drug organizations," the White House said in a statement.

The Bush administration estimates that 90 percent of the cocaine that hits U.S. streets enters through Mexico. Mexicans long have complained that U.S. drug consumption finances much of the violence and corruption, and that traffickers obtain guns from the United States.