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U.S. and Mexico pledge more nonmilitary aid in battle against drug cartels

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; A10

MEXICO CITY -- Faced with soaring drug violence that Mexico's military has failed to stem, U.S. and Mexican officials said Tuesday that they will seek to bolster nonmilitary spending on police and courts and look for ways to help ravaged communities, but they offered few concrete proposals for fighting the powerful drug cartels.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led a high-powered delegation of Cabinet members to Mexico, said she and her counterpart, Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, agreed on the need for a joint survey to better understand the whys and hows of drug consumption in the two countries.

Clinton also repeated statements that the appetite for drugs in the United States greatly contributes to drug trafficking and its attendant violence in Mexico -- and that the United States must do more "within its laws" to slow the flow of illegal weapons and drug cash heading south.

"We know demand for drugs drives much of this violence," she said.

Asked if U.S. and Mexican officials had discussed the idea of decriminalizing drugs to undermine the power of the traffickers, Clinton gave a one-word answer: "No."

The day-long meeting Tuesday was to review the progress of the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion program designed to help neighboring countries, including Mexico, combat drug trafficking by providing them with helicopters, night-vision goggles, crime data software, and training for federal police officers and judges.

Mexican officials have repeatedly complained about the slow delivery of equipment and training, and the Mexican foreign minister again suggested that faster is better.

"We need equipment today and not in a few years," Espinosa said.

The Obama administration is seeking congressional support to continue the Merida Initiative, with $310 million budgeted for Mexico in 2011. The White House is shifting its support away from military-style hardware and toward investments designed to strengthen Mexican communities and help dissuade young people from enlisting as cartel gunmen.

To highlight the importance of the U.S. relationship with Mexico and its concern about the raging fight against the cartels, Clinton described the U.S. delegation as "one of the most formidable teams we've brought to any foreign meeting during this administration."

Accompanying Clinton were Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.

Napolitano told reporters on the flight to Mexico City that the fight against traffickers needs solutions beyond the 50,000 military troops that President Felipe Calderón has sent into the streets.

"It has to be complemented with civilian law enforcement and the whole traditional framework that surrounds that," Napolitano said. "We can help with that."

There have been 2,213 homicides related to drug violence in Mexico this year, according to the newspaper El Universal. Most were execution-style killings, with the victims stalked and assassinated in public places or their bodies dumped beside placards taunting the government.

U.S. and Mexican officials have said repeatedly that most of the dead are probably connected to the drug trade, but there is increasing evidence that many others are caught in the crossfire.

This month, gunmen killed three people connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso. Consulate employee Lesley Enriquez and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, were ambushed near the international bridge. Another man married to a consulate worker also was fatally shot after leaving the same party in Juarez.

Last week, two university students were killed in gunfire between armed gangs and Mexican soldiers in Monterrey. Afterward, drug cartels made a bold show of power by blocking highways in the city. The barricades were made of stolen and torched vehicles.

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