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"We Need Your Help Here"

A government report finds the U.S. has been too slow to aid Mexico and other crime-ridden countries at a time when drug-related violence is escalating. Efforts to combat alien smuggling have also fallen short.

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By the federal government’s own admission, the systems put into place to secure the border and address related issues have not measured up.

The problem is not willful ignorance by Washington, as some Texas lawmakers argue, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Rather, the Merida Initiative has progressed at a slower pace than anticipated despite the continued escalation of violence in the region. Efforts to combat alien smuggling have also fallen short, a second report notes, though one border state currently in the national spotlight — Arizona — has succeeded in this area and is considered a model for others to follow.

A $1.4 billion aid package initiated by then-President George W. Bush, Merida was signed into law in 2008 and was designed to help Mexico, Central America and Haiti combat drug gangs and other organized crime within their borders. Lawmakers who favored the proposal argued it wasn’t a “blank check” for those governments but would provide training, equipment and intelligence-sharing. Yet the report indicates that the geographic targets, especially Mexico, have been left to wait for resources that were promised. As of March 2010, just 46 percent of what was allotted to the countries in the agreement had been awarded, due to “challenges associated with an insufficient number of staff to administer the program, negotiations on interagency and bilateral agreements, procurement processes, changes in government, and funding availability,” the report says.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism, said he didn’t need a report to tell him, or the Mexicans, the reality of the situation.

“When I was down there in Mexico City five months ago, we met with President Calderon. One of the first things he told our delegation was, “Hey, we need your help here as soon as possible,’” Cuellar says. “We could see months ago that the equipment wasn’t there.”

Part of the problem, he says, is that the State Department gets mired in one issue and stalls on the rest. A change in plans for delivery of a helicopter, for example, will have a domino effect on distribution of x-rays and counter surveillance equipment and training.

“You can’t use a few change orders as a blanket excuse,” he says. “If your neighbor’s house is burning down, are you going to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you the fire department in 2012’? The bad guys are not waiting and saying, ‘OK, whenever you’re ready and we’re equal, then we’ll go after each other.'”

In Merida’s infancy, critics balked at the idea of aiding governments that they believed could be corrupt with U.S. resources. Cuellar says that as far as he can tell, the State Department isn’t delaying delivery because it fears goods are falling into the wrong hands. Federal officials remind those critics that the U.S. is still fighting a two-front war in the Middle East.

When promised resources have materialized, Cuellar says, they've had an impact. “What [U.S. agents working with the Mexican government are] telling us is, this is making a big difference,” he says. “If you look at some of the victories they’ve had … we’ve been involved.”

Even if the disbursements increase and the U.S. comes through on more of its commitments, the State Department has no method of determining whether the aid is effective, the GAO report notes. Merida lacks “some of the key attributes that would facilitate assessing whether agencies are making progress toward meeting strategic goals,” the report says.

In its report on alien smuggling, the GAO acknowledges that the government has increased manpower and resources to combat the problem on the Southwest border since 2005. But asset forfeiture derived from successful prosecutions has declined since 2007, from $17.4 million then to $ 7.6 million in 2009.

One state on the border, Arizona, earned praised for successfully using its resources to dismantle alien smuggling organizations. There, a multi-agency task force, including staff from the state attorney general’s office, follows cash transactions through money transmitters that serve as the method of payment for smugglers.

“What Arizona has tried to do is attack the proceeds, the life blood of the network, instead of going after this person or that person,” says Richard Stana, the director of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Issues Department. “Of the places we visited, that was the only place that had a rather sophisticated system in place.”

As part of its recommendation, the GAO suggests that the federal government should conduct an analysis “to determine whether [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] could utilize Arizona’s financial investigative techniques to address alien smuggling.”

Despite Arizona’s success, Texas is still a leader in prosecuting alien smugglers. According to the GAO report, Texas arrested more people (1,433) for violating federal smuggling laws in 2009 than California and Arizona did. More than 80 percent served time in prison.

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