Clinton: U.S. shares blame for Mexican drug violence

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2009 

MEXICO CITY — The U.S. bears much of the blame for violent drug wars roiling Mexico because of its demand for drugs and its failure to stop illegal weapons from crossing the border, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday, accepting "shared responsibility" for the problem.

Clinton, on an inaugural visit to Mexico to pave the way for an April trip by President Barack Obama, rejected the notion — put forward by some of U.S. government intelligence analysts — that Mexico could lose control of parts of the country to the drug cartels.

"I don't believe there are any ungovernable territories in Mexico," she told a news conference, while lauding Mexican President Felipe Calderon's "great courage" in battling the drug traffickers.

She announced that Obama would seek $80 million, most of it in an upcoming supplemental budget request, to provide Mexico with three Blackhawk helicopters. Mexican officials, along with some members of Congress, complain that U.S. anti-narcotics aid under a program called the Merida Initiative has been slow to arrive.

More than 7,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug wars here since January 2008. The violence, while brutal, has been mostly localized to a handful of cities. Most of the dead are drug traffickers involved in turf battles and Mexican security forces.

Clinton's acceptance of U.S. responsibility appeared designed to address Mexican complaints that its drug wars have deep roots north of the border and to avoid a blame-game that might distract from the counter-narcotics effort.

Clinton offered the bluntest comments to date by any senior U.S. official that Americans' habits and government policies have stoked the drug trade and the accompanying violence.

"How could anybody conclude any differently?" she said. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians."

U.S. domestic drug-control strategies during the past three decades have largely failed, she said, suggesting that the Obama administration will try to reduce demand and emphasize treatment more than its predecessor.

"We have certainly been pursuing these strategies for . . . a long time. I remember Mrs. Reagan's 'just say no,' " Clinton said, referring to former first lady Nancy Reagan's exhortation to young people to refuse drugs. "It's been very difficult."

The White House announced Tuesday that it will dispatch hundreds of additional federal agents and deploy new technologies to the U.S.-Mexico border. The steps are designed to help border states deal with the spillover effects of the violence and to interdict drugs coming north and cash and weapons flowing south.

Obama held off a decision on a request by the governors of Texas and Arizona to deploy National Guard troops to the border.

The Mexican government views that move warily, seeing it as a prelude to a wider militarization of the border.

At a news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, Clinton, in response to a question from a Mexican journalist, acknowledged the difficulty of gun control in the U.S.

She noted that as first lady and as a senator, she supported an assault weapons ban. "But it was passed with an expiration date, and it expired 10 years later," she said. "We're exploring approaches that might work."

Espinosa said Mexico welcomes the new steps announced in Washington this week, but grittily rejected the idea that the country could become a "failed state" — a phrase that has infuriated many Mexicans.

"It's very clear to anybody who comes to this country . . . that this is a democratic country, with strong institutions," Espinosa said. While there are parts of Mexico where she might not escort Clinton, she said, the reverse might be true in the U.S.

Clinton's remarks on U.S. responsibility for drug trafficking and drug-related violence continue a more humble tone toward the rest of the world that Obama has adopted. The Bush administration, in contrast, was often seen abroad as hectoring friends and adversaries alike.

While the headlines from Clinton's two-day visit here are sure to be dominated by the drug violence, which she acknowledged is "horrific," she went out of her way to stress that the U.S.-Mexico relationship goes beyond a single issue.

Also on the agenda are environmental protection, clean energy and climate change; immigration; the global economic recession and the upcoming G-20 meeting in London in which Mexico will participate; and trade — including disputes involving the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Clinton announced that the administration has set aside $720 million to modernize border crossings and streamline commerce.

On the drug front, Congress has approved $700 million to help Mexico fight drug traffickers and build more effective security forces. However, lawmakers cut back the first installment of aid under the Merida Initiative to $300 million from $450 million.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut who's chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on Wednesday that the additional White House steps announced Tuesday was "a significant first step forward. But I don't think it is enough."

(Marisa Taylor in Washington contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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