Narco wars loom over Clinton agenda in Mexico

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton set out for Mexico Wednesday to pursue a broad diplomatic agenda that will be overshadowed by spiraling drug violence and fears of greater cross-border spillover.

A day after the Obama administration announced it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the United States' Southwestern frontier and help Mexican authorities in their battle against drug cartels, Clinton was to depart on a two-day trip to Mexico City and Monterrey aimed at bolstering anti-narcotics cooperation.

U.S. officials say they do not want relations with Mexico to be dominated by the violence, which has spread from the border region on the Mexican side into some U.S. border states. The officials maintain that Clinton also wants to discuss trade, climate change and the global financial crisis in her meetings.

Among the contentious issues are new Mexican tariffs on 89 U.S. products imposed last week in retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel a cross-border program that gave Mexican truckers access to U.S. highways. Mexico's move could affect about $2.4 billion in annual trade.

Yet U.S. officials acknowledge that the violence between Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government and the cartels, along with bloody turf battles among the traffickers, are the most urgent issues the two countries face. Clinton's talks are designed in part to encourage Mexican authorities to do more in response to the stepped-up U.S. effort, they say.

The escalating violence has set off alarm bells in the U.S. and triggered a State Department travel alert last month that compared recent confrontations between Mexican authorities and the cartels to "small-unit combat." Mexican officials say the violence killed 6,290 people last year and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.

It has also led to a spate of kidnappings and home invasions in some Southwestern U.S. cities, prompting calls from state and local officials for troops to be sent to the border.

Clinton's trip marks the start of several high-level meetings on the matter. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are to meet with Mexican officials in early April before President Barack Obama is expected to visit Mexico ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration rolled out a multi-agency plan to protect the border, including the deployment of nearly 500 federal agents and support personnel, building on efforts begun during the Bush administration. However, officials did not say where the additional agents would come from or how long they would stay in their new assignments.

"If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done, then we will do more," Obama said Tuesday during a prime-time news conference.

Obama said the U.S. needs to do more to prevent guns and cash from flowing back to the cartels.

"That's part of what's financing their operations. That's part of what's arming them. That's what makes them so dangerous," he said. "And this is something that we take very seriously and we're going to continue to work on diligently in the months to come."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry last month asked for 1,000 troops be sent to bolster border security in his state. Napolitano said Tuesday officials were still considering whether to station National Guard troops along the Arizona and Texas borders with Mexico, which some governors have requested.

In addition, officials said they will increase the number of immigrations and customs agents, drug agents and antigun-trafficking agents operating along the border. The government also will allow federal funds to be used to pay for local law enforcement involved in Southwestern border operations and send more U.S. officials to work inside Mexico.

At the same time, U.S. prosecutors say they will boost efforts to go after those smuggling guns and drug profits from the U.S. into Mexico, and allowed that the problem was not only one of supply, but of demand for illicit narcotics in America.

Those steps come in addition to a three-year, $1.4-billion-dollar Bush administration-era program known as the Merida Initiative through which Congress already has approved $700 million to support Mexico's efforts to fight the cartels. Obama has said he wants to revamp the initiative.


Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.