Violence-plagued Mexico sees hope in U.S. border plan

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico Tue Mar 24, 2009 7:20pm EDT

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexicans desperate for an end to drug gang murders, abductions and extortion saw a glimmer of hope on Tuesday as the United States vowed to tighten security on the increasingly violent border.

U.S. officials announced a $184 million program to add 360 security agents to border posts and step up searches for smuggled drugs, guns and money, as Mexico's spiraling drug war seeps over the border into the United States.

"This is what we have wanted for so long. People can leave their houses again," said taco seller Andres Balderas in Ciudad Juarez, the bloodiest flashpoint in Mexico's drug war. Cartel violence has killed 2,000 people in the city in the past year.

"They should have done it a long time ago, given they are responsible for this drug demand and violence," Balderas added.

As President Felipe Calderon stakes his presidency on an army-led war on drug cartels, he has urged Washington to crack down on weapons smuggling to Mexico, where nine of every 10 guns recovered from crime scenes and raids are traced to U.S. deals.

Although experts warned the security plan would not be enough to stop the violence, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said it showed a determination on both sides of the border to stamp out organized crime and in particular the smuggling of U.S. guns, drug-making chemicals and cash into Mexico.

Business leaders say the violence is hitting investment and want closer cooperation between U.S. and Mexican forces.

"Mexican authorities are overwhelmed by crime. They need funding, infrastructure and intelligence," said Roberto Quijano, head of the business chamber in Tijuana, another northern border city wracked by drug cartel violence.

Ciudad Juarez's mayor, Jose Reyes Ferriz, said the plan was better than previous U.S. policies of building border fences to keep out illegal Mexican workers and drug traffickers.

Mexican troops captured $5 million in cash and a huge stash of cocaine and guns on Tuesday at a house in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, territory of top drug fugitive Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman's bands of smugglers.

TEXAS WANTS TROOPS

Susan Ginsburg of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington praised the plan, saying the United States "has a very real opportunity to really reduce the flow of guns to Mexico."

Others are skeptical the measures will curb the runaway violence rattling investors and tourists since last year, when about 6,300 Mexicans were murdered in the drugs war.

"(The) measures are positive but they will be insufficient until the United States deals with its drug consumption issues," said Hector Padilla, a political analyst at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said more federal agents and even troops were needed to secure the border, and reiterated a recent call to send 1,000 more National Guard troops to the border.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora recently told Reuters there was no need for the United States to send troops to the border, although Mexico would only object if U.S. soldiers were sent into Mexico.

The U.S. plan assigns more agents from the U.S. departments of Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security to the border. It would add 100 agents to screen southbound vehicle and rail traffic and add X-ray and other equipment at border stations.

"This plan can help us get back to living our lives," said Rogelio Martinez, a hardware store owner in Ciudad Juarez, where drug violence has caused many businesses to close.

Mexico's government says killings in Ciudad Juarez have dropped by 70 percent since Calderon sent 7,500 soldiers and 2,500 federal police to the city earlier this month.

The U.S. plan would give $59 million to local enforcement authorities for border efforts, a move welcomed by police on the border in Arizona, a key corridor for illegal immigrant and marijuana smuggling.

"The administration is realizing how important the border is," said Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden.

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas, Mary Milliken in Los Angeles, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix, Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Robin Emmott in Mexico City; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray)

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