MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised on Tuesday to help Mexico broaden a drug war that has failed to curb traffickers’ increasingly deadly power along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Clinton, leading a top-level U.S. delegation in Mexico City for a day of talks, said it was time to tackle the deeper social issues that fuel the narcotics trade as both nations battle to outmaneuver powerful smuggling organizations.
“These narcotics cartels are waging war on civil society,” Clinton told a news conference, pledging that the joint U.S.-Mexican response would not be bound by “borders or bureaucratic divisions.”
Clinton said anti-drug efforts must move beyond efforts to disrupt trafficking organizations and seek to strengthen law enforcement agencies, increase economic opportunity and set up a “21st Century border” that can promote security, trade and movement between the two neighbors.
The weight of the delegation -- including Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and military Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Admiral Mike Mullen -- underscored Washington’s concern over the raging drug violence to the south.
That concern sharpened after the shooting deaths this month of two U.S. citizens in the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, an attack that raised the question of what Washington could do to bolster security without being seen as interfering in Mexico’s internal affairs.
The United States is already deeply involved in Mexico’s struggle with drug gangs and has pledged some $1.4 billion over three years in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to crush cartels who ship $40 billion worth of illegal drugs north each year.
Mexican critics say the United States has not done enough to help and that aid already pledged has been slow to arrive.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said the U.S. team had promised to speed assistance and resolve “bottlenecks that have delayed the delivery of equipment we need.”
Mexico’s drug violence is a major political test for President Felipe Calderon and a worry for Washington, foreign investors and tourists. A poll in Mexican newspaper Milenio on Tuesday showed 59 percent of respondents think cartels are winning the drug war, while 21 percent say the government is.
U.S. officials say there is no evidence the Americans were deliberately targeted in Ciudad Juarez, but the attack highlighted the growing security threat in the border region, and U.S. officials vow that justice will be served.
“There’s a real focus on identifying the perpetrators of this crime. It is outrageous,” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told reporters aboard Clinton’s plane.
Tuesday’s discussions focused on the next steps for Plan Merida, the $1.4 billion U.S. initiative launched in 2007 to help Mexico fight the cartels.
Clinton promised to step up U.S. efforts to prevent guns from flowing southwards -- a major source of arms for traffickers -- and to work to address illegal drug demand in both countries, a key underlying cause of the crisis.
Napolitano said Mexico could expect more U.S. drug enforcement, border security teams, sniffer dogs, license plate readers and better intelligence sharing, but said Washington also wants to broaden the primarily military focus of the effort.
Clinton said emphasis on social programs was important in the wake of the financial crisis that left many on both sides of the border with few economic options. “The recent downturn in economic growth and remittances has aided the drug traffickers in their recruitment of young people,” she said.
Calderon recently visited Ciudad Juarez, where drug gang violence has killed some 4,600 people in two years, and launched programs, including new schools, nurseries and soccer pitches, aimed at enticing youths away from drug cartels.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Bill Trott