Reporting from Washington — President Obama sought to calm a diplomatic furor, disputing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's assertion that Mexico has begun to look like Colombia at the height of its struggle against a drug-financed insurgency.
Obama's comments, in an interview published Thursday by the Los Angeles-based Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, followed an outcry that began in Mexico after Clinton told a foreign policy group Wednesday that Mexico "is looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country."
Clinton's comments were quickly challenged by aides to Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
"Mexico is a great democracy, vibrant, with a growing economy," Obama told the newspaper. "And as a result, what is happening there can't be compared with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago."
U.S. officials including Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, have scrambled to minimize the damage to relations with Mexico, a key partner in the anti-drug fight.
They said that while there are similarities between Mexico and Colombia in terms of the widespread violence, the Mexican drug cartels have no political agenda — they are not seeking to overthrow the government.
However, there is widespread, though not universal, sentiment within the U.S. government that the Mexican drug cartels need to be fought with the tough methods used in the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, which employed both military and aid programs.
A spokesman for Clinton said her comparison was a reference to the level of violence in Mexico.
"What the secretary was reflecting is the increased brutality being shown by the criminal elements who are challenging authority in Mexico," Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, told a group of foreign journalists Thursday.
Obama administration officials are struggling to balance the need to show they are serious about the escalating violence in Mexico with the sensitivities of their government counterparts there. The Calderon administration has sharply escalated the anti-drug effort with a crackdown launched four years ago, and Mexico is highly sensitive to U.S. criticism about the effort.
More than 28,000 Mexicans have been killed in the drug war since late December 2006. There has been a growing outcry from officials in U.S. border states such as California, Arizona and Texas as the carnage has edged closer.
Peter Andreas, a Brown University scholar who has written extensively about the Mexican drug issue, said some federal officials were now describing the drug activity there as a "commercial insurgency," and arguing for a strategy similar to those used to counter an insurgency.
Clinton, in her comments, said the governments in the region needed to develop the "equivalents" of Plan Colombia to gain the upper hand.
Plan Colombia has drawn criticism for its heavy use of military force, the presence of hundreds of U.S military advisors, and for human rights abuses. The program involved not only military advisors, but U.S. special forces personnel and a large number of defense contractors.
Clinton acknowledged that Plan Colombia was "controversial … there were problems and there were mistakes. But it worked."