Reporting from Mexico City — Amid rampant violence and growing doubts over the effectiveness of Mexico's war against drug cartels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday pledged widened U.S. support for a battle she said must be shouldered by both nations.
Clinton, leading an unusually large delegation of senior Obama administration officials, offered firm endorsement of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who declared war against drug cartels more than three years ago. More than 18,000 people have died since in drug-related violence.
"We are working in our two governments together to solve the problem posed by the criminal cartels that stalk the streets," Clinton told reporters after meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa and other officials.
Mexican authorities want more help from Washington in stemming the flow of weapons and cash from the United States.
"It is clear that the flow of illegal arms and cash have contributed to the violence observed in our country," Espinosa said.
The two sides agreed to step up joint planning and cooperation to prevent the illegal movement of drugs and weapons across the border, and to tackle money-laundering and share intelligence. Clinton said both governments would focus more on building sound institutions and stronger communities. Espinosa said the nations would jointly conduct a study of drug consumption. They agree that drug consumption in the United States is a major reason for violence south of the border.
Clinton was later to meet with Calderon.
The U.S. contingent included Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair; Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism; Gary G. Grindler, acting deputy attorney general; and Michele Leonhart, acting director of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The visit reflects the Obama administration's deepening stake in the drug war, launched by Calderon in December 2006 and heartily backed by then-President George W. Bush. Since taking office, President Obama also has voiced strong support, casting the battle as a matter of U.S. security.
The meeting was planned long before the March 13 slayings of three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. But the incident loomed over the get-together as evidence that the Calderon strategy had failed to rein in violence.
Two of the victims were U.S. citizens -- a pregnant employee of the consulate and her husband -- and the third was a Mexican man married to another consulate worker, also a Mexican citizen. The slayings are unsolved, though U.S. officials have said they do not believe the victims were chosen because of nationality or links to the consulate.
"The grim truth is that these murders are part of a much larger cycle of violence and crime that have impacted communities on both sides of the border," Clinton said.
The session was part of a series of annual, high-level meetings to guide anti-crime strategy under the U.S. security aid package for Mexico known as the Merida Initiative.
The $1.4-billion, three-year aid package, forged under Bush, has provided Mexico with helicopters, truck scanners and other equipment, plus law enforcement and judicial training. The package formally ends after this year.
Obama is seeking $310 million in security aid for Mexico in next year's federal budget, which in effect would extend Merida. Clinton said officials hoped to expand the scope by placing more emphasis on efforts to fortify community institutions and improve living conditions in violence-plagued areas of Mexico.
The bilateral meeting took place at a delicate moment for the Calderon offensive.
The Ciudad Juarez slayings highlighted once again the lawlessness there despite the presence of 10,000 Mexican troops and federal police. In January, gunmen opened fire on a teen party in Juarez, killing 15 people. Violence has surged recently elsewhere along the U.S. border and in other states farther south, such as Sinaloa and Guerrero.
The Calderon campaign has produced some big-name arrests and major seizures of weapons and drugs, but continuing bloodshed has deepened public skepticism.
In a poll Tuesday in the Milenio newspaper, 59% of respondents said the drug traffickers are winning the war, compared with 21% who said the government is.
Mexican authorities say the escalating death toll, largely a result of fighting among rival traffickers, is a sign of growing desperation by drug gangs under pressure. Officials also cite U.S. data suggesting that cocaine in the United States has grown more expensive and less pure -- signs, they say, that less cocaine is making it across the border.
In addition, authorities here say a drop in the number of drug-smuggling flights detected crossing the southern border from Guatemala shows that tighter enforcement is altering trafficking routes away from Mexico.
Many critics, however, say the drug war is futile as long as drug use in the United States remains illegal and demand robust. Others worry that using Mexico's military as a domestic police force imperils human rights and could undermine confidence in the armed forces, one of Mexico's most-trusted institutions.