WASHINGTON — An epidemic of drug-related violence that has claimed thousands of lives in northern Mexico and begun to spill over into U.S. border cities has thrust Mexico into the first tier of President Barack Obama's security concerns.
The administration announced Tuesday that it's sending more federal agents and high-tech equipment to the U.S.-Mexican border in an attempt to blunt violence in both countries. One aim is to stanch the flow of U.S. weapons into Mexico, which Mexican officials say is fueling the drug wars.
The new steps are a response to a growing outcry by politicians in border states and on Capitol Hill. There have been more than 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico since January 2008 and the violence, while largely confined to less than a half-dozen cities, is testing the Mexican government's security forces.
"This issue requires immediate action," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Tuesday. "We are guided by two very clear objectives. First, we are going to do everything we can to prevent the violence in Mexico from spilling over across the border. And second, we will do all in our power to help (Mexican) President (Felipe) Calderon crack down on these drug cartels."
Omitted from the steps, which build on programs begun under the Bush administration, is the deployment of 1,000 additional National Guard troops requested by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Perry and Brewer praised the White House announcement, but reiterated their requests for National Guard troops to back up border agents and local law enforcement agencies. "I . . . remain hopeful that we will get the resources we need," Perry said in a statement. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, plans to meet with Perry in Texas on Thursday to discuss the National Guard proposal.
The dispatching of more customs, border and federal firearms agents to the border comes on the eve of a string of high-level U.S. visits to Mexico, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and Thursday. She'll be followed next week by Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, and later in April by Obama.
Clinton's talks also will focus on the global economic crisis and a long-running dispute over the entry of Mexican trucks into the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It's the drug violence that's dominated headlines and captured U.S. political attention, however.
In Mexico, Clinton faces the delicate diplomatic task of pushing for joint action on the violence, while acknowledging that U.S. demand for illicit drugs is half the problem and simultaneously assuring Calderon's government that the U.S. has broader interests in Mexico.
Calderon, who launched major offensives against drug cartels after taking office in 2006, was outraged by comments earlier this month by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair suggesting the Mexican government is losing power to govern parts of the country.
Mexican officials want a beefed-up effort to stop narcotics-related cash that flows south across the border in tandem with sophisticated U.S. weapons that constitute more than 90 percent of the arms Mexico seizes from drug traffickers.
Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., praised the measures announced at the White House, saying they demonstrate a U.S. understanding that the two nations must "work on both ends of the border."
Mexico has argued for some time that that flow of cash and weapons from the U.S. "has undermined our ability to defang the drug trafficking syndicates operating in Mexico," Sarukhan said.
The U.S. already has pledged about $700 million to help Calderon fight drug trafficking under the three-year Merida initiative, begun under former President George W. Bush. The new plan calls for redeploying more than 360 officers and agents to the U.S. side of the border.
In the next 45 days, the administration will be using money from the economic stimulus to relocate 100 Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents to the border to boost a program aimed at disrupting arms trafficking between the two countries. Homeland Security is doubling border enforcement task forces, to 190 officers, and sending 16 new Drug Enforcement Administration agents to posts near the border.
The new White House attention to Mexico has been relatively sudden, beginning with a pre-inauguration meeting between Obama and Calderon.
"Mexico was not high on the priority list on an extremely overcrowded agenda," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Because of the daily, brutal violence, "Mexico was thrust high up on the agenda."
In the past, high-level U.S. attention to Mexico has often waxed, and just as quickly waned. It remains to be seen if that pattern will be broken.
Clinton's trip is intended to demonstrate "from the beginning . . . that we really see this as a critical partnership and one that requires as much high-level attention as any bilateral relationship that we have," said Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
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