U.S. praises Mexico drug sweep, promises more help

By Catherine Bremer
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 6:20 PM

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Thursday praised Mexico's new crackdown on drug gangs and said the United States would work more closely with its neighbor to curb recent violence.

President Felipe Calderon, who took office last month, has deployed thousands of troops and federal police to hunt down cartel members in western and northern states plagued by drug violence.

Gonzales said Washington was heartened by the conservative president's stance even though corruption remains a major challenge.

"What we're seeing early on is a very hopeful sign that this is an individual who is very committed to the rule of law, so we intend to work as closely as we can," Gonzales told Reuters after meeting his Mexican counterpart Eduardo Medina Mora.

"It appears this president is going to do what the law allows him to do. These issues are too important -- we cannot fail -- and we'll be in touch as often as we need to be," he said in an interview.

Gonzales said U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies were working together better than before, but still needed to step up cooperation and information sharing.

Officials "must be able to cooperate with one another on a broader scale and in an atmosphere of mutual trust if we are going to be able to turn back the tide of recent violence and crime that so adversely affects us all," Gonzales said.

Mexico counted some 2,000 gangland murders last year related to turf wars between cartels over multimillion-dollar smuggling routes that shift hundreds of metric tons of cocaine, amphetamines and marijuana through Mexico each year.

This week thousands of soldiers were sent to military bases near the resort of Acapulco in Guerrero state, a major marijuana and opium poppy growing region that has been increasingly drawn into drug gang turf wars.

Calderon has also sent 7,000 troops and federal police to his home state of Michoacan, and a 3,300-strong force to the rough northern border city of Tijuana.

Gonzales said it was vital to halt the spread of Central American street gangs and to fight corruption, which is believed to be widespread among Mexico's poorly paid municipal police.

In Tijuana, where Mexican soldiers last week confiscated guns from local police, Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon said recently that low police wages made it hard to resist the sums drug cartels are willing to pay.

"Obviously there are issues of corruption in this country. It's something we need to be focused on -- how do we ensure the integrity of the individuals involved in some of these law enforcement efforts," Gonzales said.

(Additional reporting by Jason Lange)

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