U.S., Mexico to Intensify Fight Against Violent Drug Gangs

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

MONTERREY, Mexico, March 26 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that Mexico and the United States had agreed to develop a "checklist" of tasks for both sides to intensify the fight against Mexican drug gangs engaged in a bloody turf war.

Speaking near the end of a two-day visit, Clinton said the list would include timelines committing the United States to speed up delivery of drug-fighting aid and getting Mexico to move faster on reforming its judicial and law enforcement institutions.

Clinton also said she was "confident" that a trade tiff with Mexico over trucking would be resolved quickly and that Mexico's recent decision to slap tariffs on dozens of U.S. products "will be withdrawn."

Clinton's visit came as the U.S. government expressed alarm over the surge of drug violence in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderón has deployed the army in a desperate effort to restore order. More than 7,000 people have been killed since January 2008 in attacks by traffickers on their competitors and security forces.

Clinton called on Mexicans to support their government's fight against the gangs and urged students to use the Internet to send tips on illegal activity to authorities.

"This is the responsibility of citizens as well as leaders," she said at a speech at the Tecnologico de Monterrey university. "It is a mutual responsibility, and it's particularly important for the young people of Mexico, who have enormous power right now, to strengthen your democracy, to call for more reforms, to shine a bright light on corruption."

Monterrey, about 130 miles south of the U.S. border, is Mexico's third-largest urban area. It is home to some of the country's most prosperous families, known for their multinational businesses and pricey collections of modern art. But it has seen its former tranquillity shattered by drug violence.

On the eve of Clinton's trip, authorities announced the arrest of a man they called a leading cartel figure in the Monterrey area, Héctor Huerta Ríos. Days earlier, they picked up a suspect accused of organizing a gun-and-grenade attack on the U.S. Consulate in the city last October.

During her trip, Clinton emphasized that the United States shares responsibility for the drug war because of the millions of Americans who abuse cocaine, heroin and other drugs that fuel the trade, as well as the traffickers' easy access to U.S. guns. That stance won her glowing headlines in Mexico, where many people say the American government has neglected its responsibility for the problem.

On Thursday morning, Clinton visited a gleaming new police training facility in eastern Mexico City that is receiving funds through the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a U.S. effort started last year to help train and equip Mexican security forces.

She watched police with dogs practice sniffing suitcases for drugs and carrying out a hostage-rescue exercise. She then walked through a hangar to observe two new Black Hawk helicopters purchased by the Mexican government for drug-fighting operations. The U.S. government has pledged to provide more helicopters, but the delivery has been delayed, to the dismay of Mexican authorities.

Among other priority topics during her visit was the dispute over the U.S. Congress's recent decision to end a pilot program that allowed some Mexican trucks to transport goods in the United States.

U.S. labor unions fought the program, arguing that the vehicles were not safe. Mexico said the move violated the North American Free Trade Agreement and imposed tariffs on such U.S. products as wine and sunglasses.

Between meetings, Clinton met with indigenous students and visited the Basilica of Guadalupe, a shrine to Mexico's most beloved religious icon.

Fernando Alvarez, 48, was part of a crowd of people who gathered outside a police line to catch a glimpse of Clinton. "Mexicans like her because of President Clinton," he said. "President Clinton is worshipped. He is very human. He is not very formal. That's kind of the Mexican way of living."

In Washington, Dennis C. Blair, the top U.S. intelligence officer, sought to crush perceptions that the United States was worried about Mexico's stability.

"Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state," he told journalists. Blair said the spike in violence in Mexico showed that the Calderón government's anti-drug policies were having an effect.

Blair said recent U.S. aid to Mexico included assistance in intelligence-gathering to give Calderón an advantage against the cartels. He offered no details.

Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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