GUANAJUATO, Mexico – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Mexico to stay the course in an admittedly "messy" war against drug cartels, saying Monday that the Obama administration will help with new controls on the flow of American guns across the border.
Clinton gave strong support for Mexican President Felipe Calderon's battle against the country's entrenched drug trafficking organizations. And she offered continued U.S. assistance from policing to improving Mexico's judicial system.
More than 34,600 people have died in drug-related killings in Mexico in the four years since Calderon launched the offensive against the cartels. The death toll spiked 60 percent last year.
Mayors, police commanders, judges and journalists have been gunned down. Civilians are increasingly being killed and numerous areas remain lawless. The war has only mixed support.
Clinton said there was no alternative to confronting the cartels head-on.
"It is messy. It causes lots of terrible things to be on the news," Clinton said after meeting Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in the postcard-perfect central Mexican city of Guanajuato.
"The drug traffickers are not going to give up without a terrible fight. And they do things that are just barbaric — like beheading people," added Clinton, who was to meet later Monday with Calderon in Mexico City. "It is meant to intimidate. It is meant to have the public say, 'Just leave them alone and they won't bother me.' But a president cannot do that."
With its cobblestone streets and colonial churches, the setting for Clinton's meeting with Espinoza contrasted sharply with the drug war raging in other parts of the country, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border and western coast.
The U.S. has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support and will deliver another half-billion in equipment and training this year. It has helped train thousands of policemen and sent helicopters and other crime-fighting technology.
Clinton has been frank about the shared American responsibility for the drug problem. Stubbornly high U.S. demand drives the trade, and firearms smuggled from the United States are involved in much of the violence, an issue reinforced by a small group of protesters who greeted Clinton's arrival with chants and signs saying "No more U.S. guns."
Toeing a sensitive line meant to address Mexico's concerns while avoiding a fight with firearms supporters in the United States, Clinton said the administration "was committed to doing what could be done" to require dealers near the Mexican border to report multiple purchases of high-powered rifles, which have become the weapon of choice for cartels.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives asked the White House for the requirement last month, and the move is likely to face stiff opposition from gun rights advocates. Clinton said the bureau should have "additional tools" shortly, but said officials were working to ensure that any regulation "isn't challenged and it is sustainable."
Few hold out hope that the Mexican government can rout the cartels quickly. It faces numerous challenges from sentencing criminals to stamping out corruption in its police ranks.
Clinton previously has compared the fight to Colombia's decades-long battle against drug gangs and compared Mexico's criminal groups to "insurgencies." Harsher critics even have described the country as in some ways resembling a failed state — an assessment that causes Mexican officials to bristle.
But Clinton stressed that there has been great progress. She said nearly two dozen high-level traffickers have been captured or killed in the last year, and that the U.S. has blocked business for hundreds of companies linked to drug kingpins.