MEXICO CITY (AFP) — Failure of the US Congress to approve a 1.4 billion dollar counter-drug aid package for Mexico would be "a real slap at Mexico," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said here Tuesday.
Gates said the focus of his talks in Mexico was the so-called Merida Initiative proposed by US President George W. Bush in October to build up the capabilities of the Mexican military and law enforcement to battle drug cartels.
The multi-year package would provide, among other things, helicopters and surveillance aircraft to the Mexican military, which the Pentagon sees as an opportunity to strengthen military ties that historically have been chilly.
The US administration has requested 550 million dollars for the program this year in a 2008 emergency war funding bill that the US Congress has so far failed to approve.
Gates said he hoped on the basis of conversations with leaders in both houses that the Congress will act on the bill by the end of May.
"Failure to do so I think would be I think a real slap at Mexico, and it would be very disappointing," he said.
"It clearly would make it more difficult for us to help Mexican armed forces and their civilian agencies deal with this difficult problem," he told reporters here.
Gates' visit was the second ever to Mexico by a US defense chief, and the first since a groundbreaking visit 12 years ago by then US defense secretary William Perry.
Gates met with General Guillermo Galvan, the Mexican defense minister, Government Secretary Juan Mourino, and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa.
The visit comes amid a rising tide of leftist regimes in Latin America led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and uncertain prospects for change in Cuba after Fidel Castro stepped down in February.
But senior US defense officials said Gates' agenda was more narrowly focused on building closer ties between the US and Mexican militaries than on the broader regional issues.
"Again, I think we just have to take it a step at a time and explore what the opportunities are for expanded cooperation. Nobody has a menu, or a checklist that we're working from. As I say, this relationship is still relatively young," one official said.
He also emphasized that US military assistance would be limited to equipping and training the Mexican military for counter-drug operations.
"There aren't going to be any combat troops down here or anything like that. This is a challenge Mexico has taken on and we support them," he said. "But we will essentially take the guide, or the lead of the Mexican government.
The US defense officials said they want to increase information-sharing particularly with regard to movements of ships and aircraft to counter flows of illegal drugs, arms and people through the region.
"They are interested in sharing information. We are interested in sharing information. We have to work out the procedures for it," the official said.
A second senior defense official cautioned, "The Mexicans are in the driver's seat on this."
"We want to see where they want to go. We want to see what their needs are. We want to investigate ways that they think we can be helpful to them."
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