By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; A10
GUANAJUATO, MEXICO - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed strong support Monday for Mexico's battle against violent drug cartels, but she emphasized that the country needed to do more to build democratic institutions and defend human rights.
Last year was Mexico's most violent since the Mexican Revolution, with more than 15,000 deaths related to narcotics. More than double that number have died since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the army to battle traffickers four years ago.
Asked during her one-day visit about human rights abuses by the military, which have soared in the past few years, Clinton said, "We think the Mexican government is also making progress here as well," then added that there was "more that needs to be done."
"There needs to be more legislation passed, which the Calderon government is hoping to achieve," she said. "We need to make sure any human rights violations committed by the military against civilians are tried in civilian courts. We know the Mexican government is working on that."
She also said Mexico needed a well-equipped, well-trained justice system, and added: "We stand ready to assist in that work."
Clinton traveled to this cobblestoned, Spanish colonial city to meet with her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa. She then flew on to Mexico City for a brief meeting with Calderon.
The trip was the idea of the Mexican foreign minister, who wanted to spend some one-on-one time with Clinton, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. The two chief diplomats more commonly meet in larger gatherings.
Both U.S. and Mexican officials say bilateral cooperation has never been better. But tensions have risen with the release of State Department cables by the group WikiLeaks that show U.S. officials frustrated with what they call Mexican law enforcement agencies' infighting, corruption and inability to develop intelligence.
Clinton sought to ease such tensions, telling reporters at a news conference that "I'm a fan" of Calderon. She praised his government for detaining or killing numerous high-ranking drug traffickers in the past year.
Analysts have criticized Calderon for focusing on killing kingpins and not paying enough attention to protecting citizens. Calderon's policy of using the military to aggressively confront traffickers has become increasingly unpopular in Mexico because of the sharp rise in bloodshed.
In addition, the military has been accused of committing thousands of violations of human rights.
In its annual worldwide report issued Monday, Human Rights Watch said the Mexican military "continues to commit serious abuses in public security operations, yet those responsible are virtually never held accountable."
Reform of the criminal justice system "continued to progress slowly in 2010, leaving in place a system rife with abuses," the report said.
The U.S. government has committed to support Mexico's anti-drug fight with at least $1.6 billion in equipment and training through its Merida Initiative.
The drug fight was only one topic on a bilateral agenda Monday that also focused on commerce, cross-border travel, the environment and other issues.
Mexico's ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, said the two countries were eager to put together a "road map" of what they could accomplish by 2012, when both countries face presidential elections. Calderon is limited to one six-year term under the Mexican constitution.
"Whenever we have electoral cycles coinciding, a lot of silly things get said on both sides of the border," the ambassador said in an interview. The two governments, he added, want to make sure that such campaign rhetoric "doesn't contaminate the relationship" and that the neighbors "lock in a lot of the new mechanisms of cooperation and dialogue we have been developing with this administration, so there's no U-turn possible" under future administrations.