BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday promised Caribbean nations more help in their battle against drug cartels, which many fear are a growing threat as Mexico’s U.S.-backed crackdown forces smugglers to seek alternative routes.
Clinton’s message at a Caribbean security meeting came in the wake of last month’s violence in Jamaica, where at least 73 people died as security forces fought armed supporters of an accused drug lord wanted for extradition to the United States.
“We’re working to strengthen legal institutions and facilitating the investigation and prosecution of all forms of criminal activity,” Clinton told a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Barbados.
“We’re also applying lessons we’ve learned in Colombia, Mexico and Central America,” Clinton added. “We’re working to curtail the flow of guns and illicit funds to the region and to reduce demand for drugs.”
Clinton’s stop in Barbados came at the end of a four-day Latin America tour during which she sought to boost Washington’s ties with its southern neighbors, many of whom are disappointed that relations have not progressed faster under the Obama administration.
But in the Caribbean she met a group of staunch U.S. friends who fret they may be falling victim to another of Washington’s priorities -- Mexico’s battle against drug cartels.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that Plan Merida, the $1.4 billion U.S. program started in 2007 to help Mexico fight the cartels, has had a “balloon effect” throughout the region with more drugs being rerouted through Central American and Caribbean nations to escape the crackdown.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that three-quarters of South American cocaine going north passes through Central America, with a much smaller portion moving through the Caribbean.
Clinton said that Washington was boosting security aid to the Caribbean to $79 million in fiscal year 2011 from $45 million in 2010, with spending focused on efforts to improve maritime patrol and interdiction capabilities.
She is the third senior Obama administration official to visit the region for discussions on the issue, following Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Fears of drug violence spiked last month when suspected gang members in Jamaica clashed with security forces seeking to enforce a U.S. extradition request for Christopher “Dudus” Coke, a reputed drug kingpin wanted in New York on drug and smuggling charges.
Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding narrowly survived a no-confidence motion in the island’s parliament after the opposition urged him to resign because of his alleged support of Coke, a backer of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party.
U.S. prosecutors have described Coke as the leader of the “Shower Posse,” which murdered hundreds of people by showering them with bullets during 1980s cocaine wars.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Eric Walsh
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