The United States is spending around $6.5 billion a month on the war in faraway Afghanistan, where a large part of its effort is meant to help the government assert its authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
Closer to home, the U.S. has allotted $44 million a month to help the governments of its closest neighbours – Mexico and Central America – assert their authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
The two cases raise questions about American priorities. If money were the only gauge, one might draw the conclusion that it is 147 times more important for Washington to bring security and good governance to Afghanistan than to America’s violence-plagued next-door neighbours — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, 6,000 people have died in the past two and a half years, a number that dwarfs the military death toll of Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. Central America, according to a U.N. report, has become the region with the world’s highest murder rate, an average of about 1,300 a month.
Official statistics list 4,635 murders in El Salvador in 2009. Honduras notched up 5,265 and Guatemala 6,498. Mexico topped the 2009 list with almost 8,000. Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country’s drug trafficking organizations in December 2006, more than 25,000 people have been killed.
Most of the blood-letting is blamed on drug traffickers fighting each other and the state, and on armed disputes between rival criminal gangs. To help the governments in America’s backyard tamp down the violence, then President George W. Bush signed into law, in June 2008, a three-year $1.6 billion security cooperation agreement, the so-called Merida Initiative. (So named after the Mexican city where it was hatched).