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Clinton plans talks in Mexico

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to visit in two weeks. The flows of drugs north and of arms south are likely to be key topics.

March 14, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Mexico in two weeks as part of an Obama administration effort to bolster its neighbor in its bloody war with organized crime cartels and quell mounting U.S. anxiety over cross-border violence.

The announcement Friday of Clinton's planned visit came just days after President Obama signed a spending bill that provides $300 million in additional aid for Mexican President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on drug gangs.

Clinton's visit will be the first by a top Obama policymaker to Mexico, where more than 6,000 people died in drug-related violence last year. The nation is also suffering from significant economic problems that have dented trade with the U.S.

"The stakes are high because this is the first high-level official visit, and it will set the tone for U.S.-Mexico policy and cooperation for the next four years," said Shannon K. O'Neil, director of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations' independent task force on U.S. policy toward Latin America. "They are focusing on it in a way that Washington hasn't since the first year of the Bush administration."

The announcement came as two U.S. senators asked the administration and Congress to ratify an international treaty that would obligate U.S. authorities to take more aggressive steps to curb the shipment of weapons to Mexico.

Clinton will be in Mexico on March 25 and 26 and will visit Mexico City and Monterrey.

State Department officials said her agenda would include trade issues, the global financial crisis and climate change. But the talks are expected to focus primarily on how the two countries can work together through the so-called Merida Initiative to combat the flow of drugs from Mexico and the flow of guns and laundered money from the United States.

The escalation of drug- related violence and corruption has prompted deep concern among U.S. officials, who fear it will spill across the border.

The Obama administration said this week that it would consider deploying National Guard troops to the border, but only as a last resort.

Administration officials have also said they might tinker with the Merida Initiative, a three-year program established by the Bush administration to provide aid to Mexico and Central American countries for counternarcotics intelligence sharing, training and equipment.

"It's not looking at negatives. It's looking for the positives and where we can go from here," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said of the review. "It's not a U.S. decision alone on how we proceed. This is a partnership with Mexico."

The $300 million allocated by Congress to Mexico under the Merida Initiative this year was $150 million less than had been requested.

A recent Mexico travel warning by the U.S. was timed to coincide with spring break, when American college students flock to Mexican resorts. But Duguid sought to downplay the risks, saying the administration believes the violence is isolated.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.

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