Clinton promises more US help in Mexico drug war

MEXICO CITY: A senior US delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to boost joint efforts to tackle surging violence by Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

"There is no question that they are fighting against both of our governments," Clinton said in Mexico City, barely a week after three US consulate-linked killings in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez.

Three suspected drug deaths were reported in Ciudad Juarez as top Mexican officials huddled with US envoys including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"We are working in our two governments, together, to solve the problem posed by the criminal cartels that stalk the streets of your cities and ours," Clinton later told a news conference.

Mexico has been gripped in drug-related bloodshed since President Felipe Calderon launched a military clampdown on the country's powerful drug gangs after taking office in December 2006.

More than 15,000 people have since died in suspected drug attacks, particularly near the US border, which increasingly claim the lives of innocent bystanders.

The Obama administration was the first last year to admit the United States was also to blame for Mexico's drug violence, recognizing the role of US drug appetites and the flow of weapons from north to south.

Clinton reiterated the US role and insisted that the United States was "very aggressively enforcing the laws against illegal guns."

The meetings focused on the Merida Initiative, a 1.6-billion-dollar program of aid to fight organized crime mainly in Mexico but also in Central America that is due to expire in 2011.

The Obama administration has asked Congress for a further 410 million dollars for the plan in 2011, including 310 million dollars for Mexico.

But only a fraction of the overall 1.3 billion dollars earmarked for Mexico, including police training and helicopters, has been delivered so far.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said that the two nations had agreed to overcome "bottlenecks" that had delayed deliveries of equipment required rapidly by Mexico.

Both sides said the Merida plan would evolve to focus on four areas: disrupting drug gangs through better training and technology; creating stronger institutions; improving border control to stop drugs, guns and drug money but allowing commerce to continue; and trying to address the social problems behind drug violence.

Analysts have hailed improved cooperation in recent months, including scores of extraditions of cartel leaders from Mexico to the United States, and a mass arrest of Mexican drug gang members north of the border last year.

Three killings linked to the US consulate in Mexico's notorious northern crime capital on March 13 brought renewed US attention to the problem.

Officials in Ciudad Juarez, which borders the US city of El Paso, Texas, also said Tuesday that at least 47 US citizens -- most of whom were of Mexican origin -- have been killed in drug-related violence in the city since 2008.

US law enforcement agents in El Paso last week rounded up members of the Barrio Azteca gang -- hitmen for the Juarez drug cartel -- who are suspected in the killings of a US consulate employee, her husband and the husband of another staff member.

Ciudad Juarez has been a testing ground for Calderon's military crackdown, which includes the deployment of some 50,000 troops nationwide.

But protests by angry residents greeted Calderon when he visited the city last week.

Calderon's temporary replacement of notoriously corrupt police officers with soldiers is increasingly under fire, amid continuing bloodshed and reports of sometimes brutal treatment of suspects by the army.

Clinton and the top officials met with Calderon late Tuesday before heading back to Washington.