By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
MEXICO CITY, March 25 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Mexico on Wednesday with a blunt mea culpa, saying that decades of U.S. anti-narcotics policies have been a failure and have contributed to the explosion of drug violence south of the border.
"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip, saying that U.S. policies on curbing drug use, narcotics shipments and the flow of guns have been ineffective.
"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."
Clinton appeared to go further than any senior government official in recent years in accepting a U.S. role in the long-contentious issue of the Latin American narcotics trade. In the past, U.S. politicians have accused Mexico, the main gateway for cocaine, heroin and other drugs entering the United States, of not doing enough. But two years ago, President Felipe Calderón unleashed the Mexican military on traffickers, a move that has contributed to an explosion of violence by drug gangs. More than 7,000 Mexicans have been killed in the bloodletting since January 2008, with the gangs battling authorities and one another for supremacy.
Mexicans, sensitive to slights from their richer northern neighbor, have reacted with outrage in recent weeks as the U.S. Joint Forces Command and some senior U.S. officials have suggested that the drug problem is so severe that Mexico is losing control of parts of its territory.
Clinton sought to soothe the wounded feelings, praising Calderón's "courage" and announcing that the Obama administration is seeking $66 million in new funding for extra helicopters for the Mexican police. She also pledged further unspecified steps to block the movement of guns southward, and acknowledged that proceeds from drugs sold in the United States -- an estimated $15 billion to $25 billion a year -- support Mexican drug gangs.
Clinton's comments came at the start of a U.S. blitz to emphasize support for Mexico's embattled government and improve relations with Latin America. The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is sending hundreds more agents and extra high-tech gear to the border to intercept weapons and drug proceeds heading south. U.S. border states have become alarmed about a possible spillover of the drug violence, and Congress has held hearings on the drug war.
Clinton vowed to press for swift delivery of equipment promised under the Merida Initiative, a three-year $1.4 billion package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico and Central America. Mexican officials and U.S. lawmakers say there are long lag times for helicopters and other desperately needed gear. In addition, Mexicans complain that Congress has approved only $700 million of the $950 million that the Bush administration requested for the program since it began last year.
Clinton was greeted warmly by Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who called her a "close friend" at a news conference. The Mexican official said that "we recognize very much these efforts that are now being undertaken by U.S. authorities" to combat the flow of guns and drug proceeds into Mexico.
But Mexican officials have indicated that they are hoping for more U.S. action. The Obama administration is trying to draw up a broader regional strategy on the drug problem to ensure that traffickers chased from one country do not simply move to another, aides said. One reason Mexico has emerged as a major drug hub is because the routes for trafficking Colombian cocaine have shifted away from the Caribbean islands.
Clinton's visit comes as some prominent Latin Americans are urging the United States to reexamine its drug policies. Last month, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico called on the United States in a report to consider legalizing marijuana use and focusing more on treatment for drug users. Obama has emphasized his support for expanded treatment facilities, although not for allowing marijuana use.
In addition to Clinton, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. plan to visit Mexico in the coming weeks, leading up to a mid-April trip by Obama. The president will then attend the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the region's 34 democratically elected heads of state and government, on April 17 and 18 in Trinidad and Tobago.
In comments to U.S. reporters, Clinton called for a new approach to tackling the drug problem, noting that "we have been pursuing these strategies for 30 years."
"Neither interdiction [of drugs] nor reducing demand have been successful," she said.
Clinton's assessment appeared to be at odds with some conclusions by U.S. anti-drug officials. The Drug Enforcement Administration says that Mexican traffickers have had an increasingly hard time getting their shipments into the United States, in part because of U.S. military and law enforcement operations against their transportation networks.
"The seizure rates are off the charts for the last three or four years," Michael Braun, who recently retired as a senior DEA official, told a congressional hearing this month.
While emphasizing the U.S. desire to cooperate on drugs, Clinton said she wanted her trip to also illustrate the broad range of issues the two countries routinely work on together, including the environment and education. She announced $720 million in funding to modernize border crossings in an effort to promote trade, and said both sides are trying to resolve a dispute over allowing Mexican trucks into the United States that had led Mexico to place tariffs on dozens of U.S. products.
"The relationship we have with Mexico is much broader and deeper" than the drug issue, she said.
Clinton is planning to travel Thursday to Monterrey, Mexico's business capital, before heading back to Washington.