Harper announces RCMP help for drug-war-addled Mexico

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The Mounties will play a role in Mexico’s fight against violent drug cartels, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Sunday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Mexican President Felipe Calderon prior to the start of the North American Leaders Summit Sunday

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The Mounties will play a role in Mexico’s fight against violent drug cartels, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Sunday.

He made the announcement as he arrived for a Three Amigos summit in a country sideswiped by war between rival gangs.

The RCMP will offer a variety of training programs to hundreds of Mexican federal police ranging from rookie recruits to senior officers.

The program size is modest — just $400,000 from a $15 million-a-year fund created in the 2009 budget to fight crime in the Americas.

But the Harper government says it’s responding to specific demands from Mexico, and is prepared to do more.

“We’ve received these requests from Mexico,” said one government official.

“This is sort of a first phase. We’ll continue to work with them to see what other requests we have.”

The gesture comes at a low point in Canada-Mexico relations, with Mexicans angered by new travel rules Canada imposed on them.

Harper was to discuss the pledge in a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon later Sunday. The two leaders then planned to have supper with U.S. President Barack Obama to kick off the two-day summit.

The Mounties will offer tips on interviewing techniques for entry-level police; mid-level officers will learn about money-laundering, undercover tactics, and child exploitation; and senior officers will hear about crisis management, public relations, and dealing with civilian leaders.

The announcement comes as Mexico conducts a major overhaul of its justice system, switching from an inquisitorial system dominated by paper submissions to an adversarial one like Canada’s, where the prosecution and defence square off in a courtroom.

The shift will force police to change the way they gather evidence and prepare for trials.

It is designed to help police cope with an escalating drug war.

An estimated 6,000 people died last year in a conflict that has seen scores of civilians, police and civic leaders murdered by drug cartels.

The government was eager to trumpet its gesture of friendship, with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office issuing a press release on the airplane even before arriving in Mexico.

They hoped the move might help the two countries move beyond a dispute that has soured their normally harmonious relationship.

Mexicans were incensed last month when Canada announced it would bar visitors from that country unless they had tourist visas. The move was seen as an insulting slight from a neighbour and major trading partner.

It has also caused anxiety among Mexican travellers — especially those outside Mexico City who worry about mailing their passport to the Canadian embassy and getting it back on time.

President Felipe Calderon will attempt to convince Harper at a Sunday evening meeting to back away from the move, Mexican officials say.

But the Prime Minister’s Office has already said it will not be swayed, with a Harper spokesman saying the visa decision will not be reversed any time soon.

Privately, however, government officials say the measure is likely temporary.

They say it will no longer be necessary once Canada makes changes to its refugee system, to speed up processing times, as early as this fall.

In the meantime, the government says its system cannot handle the 9,000 refugee applications it gets each year from Mexican visitors — almost all of which are rejected and which only worsen the existing backlog of cases.

The move has generated considerable news coverage in Mexico.

Television stories have featured images of long lineups outside the Canadian embassy, while would-be tourists express incredulity that a friendly country would subject them to such an insult.

It has also prompted vigorous commentary in Mexican newspapers.

One editorial in El Universal newspaper suggested the refugee issue was merely a false pretext for the visa decision. It suggested Canada was really motivated by fears of the drug war spilling over.

“Canada has traditionally been a generous country for immigrants,” said the paper.

“It is simply not credible that the refugee issue would be the sole motivation for this drastic move. The other explanation, documented by this paper in March, are the strengthening ties between Canadian drug-trafficking gangs and Mexican cartels.”

The newspaper’s comment page featured drastically different responses from readers.

One wrote: “Canada isn’t heaven on Earth, either. If we want to travel, we can go to another country, or get a visa.”

Another said: “Canada is only protecting itself from undesirables entering its territory and is well within its rights to do so.”

About 225,000 Mexicans visit Canada each year. Only 9,000 try to stay as refugees.

But the new screening process appears to have had the desired effect; the Canadian embassy has received thousands of visa applications since last month, but the rate of refugee claims has ground to a halt.

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