Published March 23, 2010
President Obama may have been focused on signing a health insurance bill into law on Tuesday, but several powerhouse members of his Cabinet were in Mexico City consulting with authorities there on strategies for combating an increasingly violent drug war pummeling America's southern neighbor.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the delegation that included Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Director Michelle Lenhart.
"This is one of the most formidable teams we’ve brought to any foreign meeting during this administration, and the makeup of this delegation is an indication of the priority that President Obama and the United States place on our relationship with Mexico," Clinton told reporters.
"We are working in our two governments together to solve the problems posed by the criminal cartels that stock the streets on your cities and ours, that kill and injure innocent people and spread a reign terror and intimidation."
Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have said their governments are committed to a "cooperative effort" to disrupt the cross-border drug trade, which has gotten so violent members of the American diplomatic corps living in Mexico have become victims of an emboldened drug syndicate.
Tuesday's trip to the region was meant to reaffirm U.S.-Mexico commitments under the Merida initiative, a $1.3 billion program enacted three years ago by former President George W. Bush and Calderon to help Mexican authorities combat the growing drug trade.
The meeting marks the second high-level consultative talks between Mexican leaders and the current U.S. administration.
Napolitano told reporters traveling with the delegation that the trip represents a culmination of many meetings between various U.S. and Mexican agencies over the last year and the heavyweight group's visit is proof of the United States' level of commitment.
"This is the real deal," Napolitano said. "We want to keep working together."
Violence along the U.S.-Mexico border is on the rise, and Jaurez, across from El Paso, Texas, is the epicenter of drug-related crime. Just two weeks ago, a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband were brutally gunned down in broad daylight as they left a birthday party.
Seven people were killed at the scene; three of them worked for the U.S. consulate. The murdered married couple's one-year-old child was found by Mexican police unharmed crying in the back seat of their car.
It's believed all were innocent victims of cartel violence.
Last year, Juarez recorded 2,600 drug-related murders.
Mexican officials, including Calderon, are quick to point out that violence can be attributed to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs. He says while both sides need to crack down on violence, the United States also needs to address its voracious appetite.
Mexico provides 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, and marijuana is considered the engine that keeps the whole trade moving.
According to DEA officials, the anti-drug partnership with Mexico has gotten significantly better since Calderon took office in 2006.
"Calderon is putting his money where his mouth is", one DEA official told Fox News. "The reason violence is on the rise is because these cartels are feeling push back from the Mexican government -- they are on the run and they are fighting for turf."
Since 2006, the government of Mexico has seized 92 tons of cocaine, 6,500 tons of marijuana and 949 kilos of heroin. They've also removed or arrested some significant drug trafficking leaders, including Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed during an attempted arrest in 2009, and Carlos Beltran Leyva, who was arrested in that same raid.
But the war comes with carnage. Since Calderon took office, 17,900 cartel members have been killed.
Meanwhile, the United States is providing a great deal of support to Mexico through the Merida initiative and longer standing drug enforcement efforts. One of the more important programs is police training.
U.S. law enforcement is training heavily vetted, young Mexican police recruits -- the younger the better as it means less time they've been exposed to influence by violent groups, officials say.
The U.S. also provides helicopters, drug sniffing dogs, intelligence and X-ray trucks to the Mexicans.
DEA officials say police corruption still exists in Mexico but the cooperative agreement has led to significant progress.
"There is no question that they (drug cartels) are fighting against both of our governments," Clinton said shortly after arriving in Mexico. "We need to push forward together in this effort, and secure the support of the public, our elected officials, and our public servants. ... The president has recommitted the United States to this effort, and we are determined to meet this challenge."