A hullabaloo has arisen over a secretly negotiated anti-drug proposal that would include new U.S. funds for Mexican and Central American security forces.

The deal, finalized in a meeting in Merida, the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan state, was announced Oct. 22 by President Bush. Under its terms, the U.S. is to give an initial $500 million to Mexico and another $50 million to the Central American nations to beef up their drug-, crime- and terrorism-fighting capacity. The total would reach $1.4 billion over three years.

Mexican legislators were upset that President Felipe Calderon had asked Bush for the money without their permission. They were not soothed by the Calderon administration’s response that since it is all U.S. money, their authorization was not legally required beforehand.

Progressive activists in Mexico are worried about the consequences of the “Merida Initiative” for civil rights and national sovereignty. Some are calling it “Plan Mexico,” a term the government rejects because it sounds so much like “Plan Colombia,” the massive U.S. intervention on the side of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe in that country’s civil war.

A country where living standards of many people have declined sharply in recent years, Mexico is boiling with civil conflicts, ranging from multiple foci of labor unrest to long-running conflicts in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Upon taking power after a questionable electoral victory over left-leaning Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador last year, Calderon, of the right-wing National Action Party, quickly mobilized the Mexican army to strike spectacular blows against the drug cartels. This strategy has U.S. support and also some internal popularity. But “La mano dura” (“the firm hand”) against crime in Latin America has a tendency to be turned against political dissidence.

And the Mexican army, like the various police agencies, does not have clean hands and is not apolitical. In 1996, then-President Ernesto Zedillo appointed army Major General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo as the new drug czar. The general quickly pounced on the Tijuana cartel. But then it was discovered he was being paid off by the Juarez cartel, whose leaders were grateful to him for wiping out their competition. And a group of Mexican army special anti-drug operations officers trained at Fort Benning, Ga., ended up setting up their own violent drug operation.

The Merida Initiative has to be seen in the context of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a process of economic and security integration involving Mexico, the U.S. and Canada that began in 2005.

The SPP’s purpose is to strengthen the support mechanisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by increasing coordination and investment in superstructure and security coordination among the three countries. It also was initiated without authorization of their legislatures, and is run by committees of big businesspeople, evidently to evade democratic accountability.

There are serious worries in Canada and Mexico that the SPP will allow U.S. imperialism to tighten its grip on its two neighbors, besides making sure Mexico does not begin to explore integration into the Bolivarian Alternatives for the Americas, the anti-imperialist economic integration project initiated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Though protests against the SPP and now the Merida Initiative have arisen from the left in Canada and Mexico, they have mostly caused hyperventilation among the far right in the United States. While progressives in Mexico and Canada have seen the SPP as an imperialist power grab by the Bush administration, anti-immigrant circles in the U.S. are yelling about a Mexico-Canadian takeover of our country. This coincides with lurid racist propaganda about (imaginary) Mexican plans for a “reconquista” (“reconquest”) via an “immigrant invasion” of Southwestern states.

On Nov. 14 the House Foreign Affairs Committee held public hearings on the Merida Initiative. The Bush administration got pounded by both the Democrats and the far-right Republicans. Anti-Mexican representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) declared that the Mexican government could not be expected to fight against the drug cartels because Mexico is one big drug cartel.

Committee chair Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) sharply criticized the Bush administration for its underhanded negotiation of the arrangement, adding, “The administration’s focus is on the symptom — the massive flow of drugs from Latin America to the United States — rather than the cure, which would clearly be long-term, balanced economic development in the region.”