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Bush Seeking Anti-Drug, Counter-Terrorism Aid for Mexico, Central America

President Bush Monday asked Congress to approve $550 million in aid to Mexico and Central American states to help them deal with cross-border crime, drug-trafficking and terrorism. The request is part of the administration's nearly $200 billion supplemental funding request for U.S. operations in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The money being sought for Mexico and Central America is only a small fraction of the administration budget request.

But it would be a major increase in U.S. security aid to the region and it is the subject of some controversy in Mexico, which has been traditionally sensitive about security relations with its northern neighbor.

The vast majority of the funding, $500 million, would go to Mexico and is aimed at bolstering what U.S. officials say have been promising efforts by Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government to disrupt drug trafficking gangs and organized crime.

The remaining $50 million would be devoted to similar regional efforts by Central American states.

In a telephone conference call with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon said he hopes Monday's request will only be a down payment on a three-year U.S. aid effort of nearly $1.5 billion.

Shannon said the United States would provide Mexico with helicopters and surveillance aircraft to support drug interdiction and rapid-response operations by Mexican law enforcement agencies, as well as advanced drug detection and communications equipment.

But questioned about Mexican political concerns, Shannon said the aid package would not involve any U.S. military presence in that country and would not require any change in agreements limiting the number of U.S. law enforcement officials currently involved in liaison work in Mexico:

"Those agreements won't change," he said. "In fact, we and the Mexicans have constructed this package in such a way that we are not going to have to increase our personnel footprint in Mexico. We're very aware of issues of Mexican sovereignty. We understand how important they are."

The aid package, under discussion by the two governments since President Bush met President Calderon in Mexico last March, has been described as Plan Mexico in Mexican press accounts - a reference to the multi-billion-dollar U.S. anti-insurgency aid program for the Bogota government known as Plan Colombia begun in 1999.

However, Assistant Secretary Shannon dismissed the comparison, stressing that the Mexican government does not face the multiple insurgencies that confronted Colombia at the time, and that the title of the new program has always been the Merida Initiative, named for the site of this year's Bush-Calderon meeting.

Shannon heaped praise on the anti-drug efforts of President Calderon, who took office last December, saying they have made more than a dent in cross-border drug traffic. He said the government has also begun major reforms of the country's judicial system to make it more transparent and less vulnerable to corruption.

He said the proposed U.S. aid effort is small in comparison to the three billion dollars committed in recent months by the Calderon government itself.

Mexico has deployed some 20,000 troops and federal police to combat drug cartels, which have been battling among themselves for dominance in gangland violence that has killed hundreds of people this year.