U.S. and Mexican officials will meet to discuss drug trafficking, violence

By Carrie Johnson and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; A02

A high-level delegation of U.S. officials, including three Cabinet secretaries, will meet with Mexican officials in Mexico City on Tuesday to discuss efforts to disrupt drug cartels as violence increasingly strikes Americans on the border.

The meeting, which will bring together a particularly high-powered group of dignitaries, comes a week after U.S. law enforcement agents fanned out in raids across El Paso to gather intelligence about a Texas gang. The gang is suspected of involvement in the recent killing of a pregnant American consulate officer and her husband, a corrections officer.

The Barrio Azteca gang, whose leader in Juarez is one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives, was formed in a Texas prison and has been linked to brutal episodes on both sides of the border. Investigators are trying to find out the motivation for the deadly attacks near the Juarez consulate, including whether the incident turned on a case of mistaken identity.

Long-running initiatives by the Mexican government to fight drug trafficking have included calls for more U.S. assistance -- a focus of the meetings with Mexican officials such as President Felipe Calderón and Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa. The meetings have been scheduled for months but took on new urgency with the recent killings.

A Justice Department delegation -- including Gary G. Grindler, acting deputy attorney general; Michele M. Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration; and Kenneth Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- will accompany Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair; John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism; and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We hope to continue the already high-level cooperation we have with the Mexican government," Grindler said in an interview. "We'll explore what are the most important priorities from the perspective of the Mexican government. . . . As we can all observe, the problems are immense. The drug cartels have a lot of money and there's a lot at stake for them."

Last week, in a separate action, U.S. authorities arrested seven people in connection with two 2009 incidents of kidnapping and homicide after 700 pounds of marijuana hidden inside a tractor rig were seized last year. Five of the men are American citizens living near the border in the United States; two are Mexican nationals.

The arrests came on the same day that federal agents began Operation Knock Down, the El Paso raids, to glean information about the attack on U.S. consulate employee Lesley Enriquez and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, in their sport-utility vehicle this month. Another man married to a consulate worker also was fatally shot after leaving the same party in Juarez.

The meeting comes as the Merida Initiative, designed to spend $1.4 billion to battle organized crime and violence by training police and Mexican prosecutors, reaches its third year of operation. The Obama administration has requested $346 million more for the program in its 2011 budget. Last year, 107 fugitives were extradited to the United States, and Mexican police have apprehended three cartel leaders since December. But many drug kingpins remain at large.

At the same time, the number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico has more than doubled since the Merida pact was signed, State Department statistics show. Last year, 79 Americans were killed there, compared with 35 three years ago.

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