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The Mexico/Central America Security Cooperation Package

Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
On-The-Record Briefing Via Conference Call
Washington, DC
October 22, 2007

(3:40 p.m. EDT)

OPERATOR: Welcome, and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. During the question-and-answer session, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Today's conference is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

Now, I'd like to turn the call over to Mr. Gonzalo Gallegos. Sir, you may begin.

MR. GALLEGOS: Hi, you all. I appreciate your participation. Thanks for calling in. This afternoon, we have Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon, who will be speaking to you on the record about the details about the President's recently announced Mexico and Central America Security Cooperation Package. Tom will give a brief outline of what happened, speak about it for a few minutes, and then he will go to questions and answers.

And with that, Tom, why don't I pass it to you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Great. Thank you very much. As Gonzo noted, I'll be brief in the introduction. I'm sure many of you saw the President's remarks. As you know, within the supplemental budget request that he is sending to the Congress, he's asking for $550 million for Mexico and Central American security cooperation. That's broken down in this supplemental into components, $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America. The 500 million for Mexico would be the first tranche of what we hoped would be a -- or hope will be a $1.4 billion multiyear security cooperation package with Mexico. The 50 million that we would be targeting on Central America we hope will be the initial installment of a larger security assistance package with Central America.

We are still in the midst of talking with the Centrals about the parameters of that larger package so we can't give you a larger number, but it's our hope that that also would be a multiyear program. We can discuss that in more detail later, if you'd like.

From our point of view, the request that the President made and the package that we've put together is a comprehensive package, it's a balanced package and a timely package. It's comprehensive because it deals with security in all its components and it builds off of a variety of initiatives that are taking place now in Mexico and Central America. We believe it's balanced because it really attempts to work with all security institutions in Mexico and Central America with a particular focus on building capacity and capability in civilian sectors. And we believe it's timely because we are at a particular moment in which organized crime presents a very real threat to the stability and well-being of democratic states in Mexico and in Central America, and because we believe that in Mexico and Central America we have leadership which, number one, recognizes the threat presented and is prepared to work with the United States and their partners in the region to fight that threat.

In this regard, we think that the kind of cooperation we've been able to establish in both Mexico and Central America to be historic. And I don't use the word lightly. As I think most of you know, the initiative for the Security Cooperation Package came out of the President's March trip to the region and especially his visits to Guatemala and Mexico, where security concerns dominated the conversations with both President Berger and President Calderon. And in the course of this discussion and the follow-on work that we've done both with Mexico and Central America, we've been able to work in ways that, from my point of view, are unprecedented and which heralds, I think, the opportunity to create a new paradigm for security cooperation in which we are working as partners with Mexico and the Central American countries.

And in this regard, I think not only are we putting before the Congress a good security package focused on fighting drug trafficking, organized crime, weapons trafficking and trafficking in people, but I also think that we are creating a form or a mode of cooperation and dialogue with Mexico and Central America that could pay big dividends in the future.

I'm sure most of you have seen already the fact sheet that we've put out entitled the Merida Initiative, United States-Mexico-Central American Security Cooperation. This goes into some detail about the different components of the Security Cooperation Package. And while it doesn't break them down in kind of line item quality, it does, I think, give a pretty good feel for what it is we're looking at providing both the Mexicans and the Central Americans.

I can't go into too much more detail than that simply because we haven't had a chance to brief the relevant committees in our Congress. We will start that process tomorrow. And once that dialogue begins with the Congress, we'll be able to offer a little more freely about line items in our cooperation package. But again, from our point of view, this is an important moment. Although the 550 million is a relatively small amount of money compared to the size of the supplemental itself, from our point of view in Western Hemisphere Affairs, this is a really important initiative, an initiative that has the potential not only to allow our partners in the region to acquire the means and the methods necessary to fight organized crime, drug trafficking and other scourges of criminal activity in the region, but also has the capability, if we take advantage of it, to build a broader regional approach to strategy which -- a broader regional strategy or approach to fighting crime that will pay a huge dividend.

Let me stop there and open it to questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. If you would like to ask a question at this time, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. You will be prompted to record your first and last name. If you decide to withdraw your question, press *2. One moment, please, while we wait for the first question.

The first question is from Elise Labott, CNN. Ma'am, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Tom, there are a lot of political concerns in Mexico that the deal could violate the Mexican constitution because it could have U.S. law enforcement agents operating on Mexican soil. Does this initiative call for U.S. agents operating in Mexican territory? And how much of the initiative is going to be kind of developed hand-in-glove with countries like Mexico and in the region to make sure that their concerns about their sovereignty are protected?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, let me answer that in a couple of ways. First, the presence of U.S. law enforcement officials in Mexico is governed by agreements and memorandums of understanding between ourselves and Mexico that determines the number of people who are accredited and what kind of authorities they have. Those agreements won't change. In fact, you know, we and the Mexicans have constructed this package in such a way that we are not going to have to increase kind of our personnel footprint in Mexico. We are very aware of issues of Mexican sovereignty. We understand how sensitive they are and we understand how important they are.

And part of what we're doing is really about building Mexican capacity and capability. And in this regard, we've worked very closely with Mexican authorities. Following the President's visit to Merida and his conversations with President Calderon, the Mexicans presented to us a strategy document in which they outlined their understanding or view of the security threats faced by Mexico and the common challenges and the common nature of the threat, especially in the northern part of Mexico along our southwestern border. And in following the presentation of that document, we began a series of consultations with Mexico, first at a more broadly strategic or political level and then at a more detailed technical level both in Mexico and here in Washington. And from our point of view, the level of the discussion, the frankness, the candor of it, was unprecedented and very, very refreshing. And I think the Mexicans would share that feeling.

And so I believe that we have constructed a package which really does represent a clear communication between the United States and Mexico and I think really includes the best thinking of experts on both the U.S. and Mexican sides.


OPERATOR: Jonathan Beale of BBC News, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I'm just wondering about the interdiction of planes. Who actually would carry that out? Would that be Mexican authorities or would that be U.S. authorities?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: By interdiction of aircraft, you mean in Mexican airspace?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, by Mexican authorities.

QUESTION: So in other words, you're not actually putting U.S. planes and helicopters on the ground?


QUESTION: You're just providing them with cash?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, cash, training, equipment. But all activities undertaken in Mexico will be undertaken by Mexican authorities.

QUESTION: Can you tell me how many U.S. personnel you have in -- sort of law enforcement personnel you have in Mexico at the moment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I can't tell you off the top of my head, but we'll get that for you.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

OPERATOR: Maria Pena at EFE News Services, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, actually, I had several but I'll just try to keep them short. On the one hand, do you think this plan will really make a dent given the magnitude of the problem and especially along the border region?

And a clarification about the name change. I mean, a lot of local media, international media, had dubbed it extra-officially, of course, Plan Mexico. And course, you guys are trying to keep away from any comparisons to Plan Colombia. So when was the name decided upon?

Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Okay. Well, in regard to the last question, there was no name change. We've never called it Plan Mejico or Plan Mexico. You know, for us, this was an initiative born out of conversations that the two presidents, President Bush and President Calderon, had in Merida, Mexico, which leads to the name, the Merida Initiative, but then the understanding that it is a broader security cooperation package involving the United States, Mexico and Central America.

And I'm sorry, what was the first one?

QUESTION: The first one dealt with, you know, do you really think this will make a dent in the problem? I know the Mexicans are really upset about the U.S. not doing enough to curtail demand on this side of the border. So will this make a dent in the problem?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: It's important to understand this is an initiative about security cooperation. And while in the process of this, you know, we have identified $500 million in this supplemental request and a universe of $1.4 billion over several years, that the Mexicans themselves so far have put nearly $3 billion of their own money against these kind of security challenges and threats and many hundreds of lives.

And we understand this as a larger effort at cooperation in which there are shared challenges and threats, but also shared responsibilities. And so we also are working with the Mexicans to identify things that we can do better in the United States that are related to the kinds of challenges and threats that we've identified, whether it's working to increase demand reduction in the United States, whether it's working to improve our law enforcement cooperation along the frontier, whether it is related to working to better interdict and prevent the movement of weapons across our border into Mexico.

In other words, this is -- what's striking about this and important is not just the money that we're asking our Congress to put against it, but the degree to which we in Mexico are working together to identify these common challenges and threats and identify shared responsibilities.

QUESTION: But they've already been identified, sir. I mean, the drug trafficking problem along the region is not new. It's been going on for decades. So -- and the Mexican demand has always been there. You know, the U.S. also needs to do its part to reduce demand.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, that's what I just said. I said that -- I mean, the Bush Administration has put nearly $17 billion against demand reduction since coming into office. And we recognize that demand reduction is an important part of any counterdrug effort and that will continue.

But I mean, in response to the broader question, I mean, obviously, we think this will have a dent. In fact, we think it will have more than a dent. We think that what President Calderon has shown already is what you can accomplish when you're determined and when you're focused and when you have a clear understanding of the threat you face. And I think the Calderon government has acted with alacrity, with intelligence and with boldness in its fight against organized crime and drug trafficking, and we want to be part of that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jose Lopez of Notimex. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. Shannon. Excuse me. I have a question. As part of this package has the U.S. requested any special commitment from Mexico in each of the items of interest in the U.S. For example, you also requested and wanted the renewal of Operation Falcon on the border. You also wanted that your agents be allowed to carry guns in Mexico. They have diplomatic immunity. I'm wondering if there's any request from your part on this.

And secondly, you said you insisted -- your government has insisted that there will be no foreign troops in Mexico. But I'm wondering which will be the footprint of the Pentagon in this package, if any.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Okay. In regard to the first question, again this is a security cooperation package that we have worked in concert with the Government of Mexico. And we've been focusing on identifying these kind of shared threats and challenges and shared responsibilities and ways in which we can work together. This has not been an effort or negotiations about other aspects of our relationship have not been part of this. So we have dealt with them separately insofar as they're connected to this broader security package.

And as far as the Pentagon goes, we are not increasing any U.S. presence in Mexico. In fact, the $500 million being requested through our Congress is all being requested through budget accounts that go to State Department.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jesus Esquivel, Processo magazine.

QUESTION: Mr. Shannon, my question is in regard to the vetting of the (inaudible) police and military personnel in Mexico. I wonder where it is going to take place that vetting of those military and Mexican police, first one. And second one, if you can be specific about what type of helicopters and planes are you going to give to the Mexicans for interdiction activities.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, unfortunately, I can't answer any specifics about the kind of equipment that we might be providing because we still have to brief our Congress. And those -- that information will emerge with time, but it's not something I can address right now.

QUESTION: What about the vetting?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I mean, well, the vetting is done at several levels. Much of it is required by U.S. legislation and that vetting is done here in the United States.

QUESTION: Oh, in the U.S. Okay. Thank you.


OPERATOR: Gary Martin, San Antonio Express News, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, Mr. Secretary, can you tell me how much -- I heard you refer to a $3 billion figure earlier that the Mexicans have already put up. But how much is this going to cost over the multiyear period? How much is it going to cost Mexico? And also on the 50 million going to Central America, is that a break -- is that going to be delivered to several countries or is it just going to Panama, Peru or -- can you give us a little bit more of a breakdown on that figure, too?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, on the 50 million it will be shared with -- in some fashion with all the Central American countries and -- but a lot of it will go to regional activities where we're trying to build connectivity between law enforcement agencies and other institutions that are fighting organized crime in the region. But again, because we haven't had an opportunity to brief our appropriations committees and other relevant committees on the Hill, I can't give you a country-by-country breakdown.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: But one of the things we want to ensure is that this is seen in Central America and by Central American governments as a regional initiative. One thing we have found as we address the broader problem of organized crime and drug trafficking is that, like water, they always move to the path of least resistance; the degree to which we increase capability in one place, they move some place else. And so we want to make sure that Central America as a regional -- as a region, has the ability to protect itself.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Now, what was the first part of --

QUESTION: And the first one was how much total will Mexico -- will this cost Mexico?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: It depends because, I mean, obviously while our initiative might be multiyear, it might have a kind of fixed end point.

QUESTION: Well, we know it's 1.4 billion.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Right. I mean, Mexico's security concerns are ongoing, and so they won't reach kind of a magic moment where they stop spending money on security. But I can't give you an exact figure at this point of time.

QUESTION: But you're already saying they've already spent 3 billion of their own funds so far?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Correct, in terms of the larger -- their larger effort to fight organized crime and drug trafficking.

QUESTION: Okay, and one final question, too. You are asking for 550 million now and so the difference in the 1.4 billion, are you going to try to put that out just through the regular budget process for fiscal year 2009?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Correct. I mean, it's a multiyear program and we're going to have to determine how much we can put into out-year budget requests. Some of it will go into the 2009 budget request and, depending on how much we're able to get, the rest will go in what we hope will be the 2010, depending on the next administration.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Nestor Ikeda, Associated Press, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. This is Nestor Ikeda. Mr. Shannon, a quick question. This package includes military aid to Mexico. Any kind of military aid, maybe helicopters or kind of weapons?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: I mean, as the fact sheet notes, there are helicopters and some surveillance aircraft that we are asking for, some of these of which would be operated by the Mexican armed forces, but that's about it.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Michele Kelemen, NPR.

QUESTION: Thanks. I have, first of all, a technical question about this teleconference. It says that it's on record and not for broadcast, and I'd like to request that we be able to broadcast it because we in radio need sound.

But my main question is about -- the issue of the comparisons to Plan Colombia have already been raised, these political concerns about that. So I wonder if you can just explain how different this is from Plan Colombia.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Okay. I can't answer the question on radio. I will leave that to my public affairs colleagues.

But, you know, as we've kind of made clear -- I mean, Colombia and Mexico are two distinct countries with two very, very different security challenges. In Colombia, the Government of Colombia and the people of Colombia were fighting at least three insurgencies -- the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitaries -- all three of which were declared Foreign Terrorists Organizations and were also involved in eradication of coca plantations that really had become a major funding source for armed insurgencies intent on overthrowing governments.

Mexico faces a different kind of challenge. The insidious nature of organized crime and drug trafficking, as opposed to insurgency, is not intent on collapsing governments. It's intent on weakening governments to the point that they cannot respond to organized criminal activities and allow those organized criminal activities basically to do whatever they want to do. In other words, they effectively constrict and constrain the authority of a democratic state without destroying it.

And the Mexicans understand this and they understand that given the kinds of social and economic development challenges they face and the very real advances that Mexico has made under President Fox and now under President Calderon in terms of economic reform, that in order to keep this progress flowing they have to address the threat presented by organized crime.

And this is kind of a longish way of saying that the threat Mexico faces is distinct. They're not facing armed insurgencies intent on overthrowing the government. And while they do have some eradication activities going on, that the primary concern is about the movement and transport of drugs, of weapons and of people through Mexico and how that has shaped the activities and behavior of organized crime. And so our security package is quite different than our package for Colombia was.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. As you know even before this was -- this agreement was being negotiated that there were heavy concerns in Mexico about sort of dragging the military deeper and deeper into the battle against the narco gangs there. And I'm wondering how you would say -- would you say that this plan places the emphasis on civilian institutions, and how does it sort of make that difference between the -- because you've already mentioned about -- that there would be helicopter and surveillance aircraft for the military. But -- so how would the emphasis be on civilian, if it is?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, I mean, our view is that the broad emphasis is on civilian capacity and capability. But at the same time, we recognize that constitutionally the armed forces of Mexico does have a role to play in support of civilian authorities in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. And the Mexican military also has an important responsibility in terms of border protections, maritime interdiction and control of Mexican airspace, plus a logistical role in support of civilian law enforcement agencies.

So in this regard, the ability to help the Mexican armed forces in terms of their airlift capacity and their air and maritime interdiction capacity is a valid and a legitimate support for the broader war on drugs. But at the same time, Mexico is making some -- taking some really dramatic steps on the civilian side. It's in the business of reforming its judicial system in a significant way, moving from kind of an old French-based system to a more open, accusatorial system similar to the United States. It is creating and expanding its police forces, civilian police forces. And it's national government is working very closely with state and local governments to reform local and state police institutions. So there's an awful lot of work to be done on the civilian side. I think the Mexicans have shown a lot of courage in stepping up to this challenge and a kind of boldness in terms of their vision, and we want to make sure we can help them.

QUESTION: Okay. And then specifically on the police, are there factors, or are there components of this rather, that would go into -- because as you know, there's a history of deep corruption in police forces in Mexico. Is there -- are there -- is there something in this for either cleaning those up or helping address that problem?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, there will be aspects of it that will help those institutions in Mexico whose responsibility it is to deal with those kinds of corruption -- corruption which, of course, all law enforcement agencies face, wherever they might be found, given the nature of the work and the things they deal with.

But again, this was an issue that was identified jointly between ourselves and Mexico. The Mexicans understand that this is an issue that they need to deal with, that they need to improve the capability of their prosecutors and their inspectors and their internal audit agencies to address these problems, and we've found some ways to help them.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi. Your statement says that this is a multiyear program. Can you tell us specifically how many years are involved? And secondly, it talks about technical advice and training. Will that technical advice and training take place in Mexico on Mexican soil or do you contemplate bringing large numbers of Mexican officials, law enforcement agents, into the United States for that training?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah, I mean, in terms of the training, it depends. I mean, right now we run a training program, some in Mexico, some in the United States, some in third countries, depending on what the issue is and how things are being -- how training is being done. And my guess is that we're going to continue that practice, so it'll be divided.

And my memory is slipping today. What was the first part of your question again?

QUESTION: The first part of the question was you say that it's a multiyear program --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Oh, yes, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It depends how much we can convince our Office of Management and Budget to put up in 2009. I mean, obviously, the sooner we can appropriate the money, the better it will be from our point of view. But budgets are -- it's a competitive sport and so we'll see. I mean, it's a -- I think one way to look at it is anywhere from a two- to three-year program.

MR. GALLEGOS: If I can interject, I think Tom has time for about one more question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. There's a question from Chris Hawley, USA Today.

QUESTION: Hi there. The last time the U.S. got heavily involved in this sort of training was when they trained the GAFE agents back in the '90s. And as you know, you know, dozens and perhaps hundreds of those have since defected and become the Zetas, which are the hitmen of the Gulf cartel. Aren't you afraid that this kind of thing would happen again?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Well, you know, I guess the best way to respond to that is that human nature being human nature, these things can happen. But we're faced with a security challenge in Mexico of significant proportions and Mexicans have come to us looking for a way to build a level of cooperation that can actually have an impact on this. And we have to respond, I think, in a meaningful and positive fashion and recognize that what we're doing, the kinds of training we're giving, the kinds of people we're working with, are part of a broader Mexican effort to kind of take back their communities and their cities.

And so there are kind of levels of trust that we need to build with Mexico in this regard and we can't allow ourselves to be dominated by fear of what might happen, you know, based on the example that you provided. There are, you know, historical reasons for what you identified. A lot of them have to do with the nature of political change that had happened in Mexico. I think that Mexico today is not a one-party state. It's a multiparty state. It has a government which is focused on fighting crime, as opposed to managing crime. And I think that this is the kind of government that we need to work with.

MR. GALLEGOS: All right. I want to thank you all for participating. Thank you, Tom, for your time. I appreciate this opportunity and I hope you all have a great afternoon.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Thank you all very much.


Released on October 23, 2007

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