- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Mexico this month to show support for that country’s crackdown on drug cartels that is blamed for a surge in violence and fears of a large-scale spillover into the United States.

The State Department said Friday that Clinton, on her third trip abroad as the top U.S. diplomat, will visit Mexico City and Monterrey on March 25-26 to underscore the Obama administration’s commitment to helping Mexican authorities deal with the deteriorating situation, which has prompted deep concern in Washington and Southwestern states.

Clinton’s agenda will be broad, including the global financial crisis, climate change and trade, but will likely be dominated by discussions on the Merida Initiative, a Bush administration project to counter narcotics trafficking and crime in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America that Obama has said he wants to revamp.

“We will be discussing Merida,” deputy State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said. “It’s not a U.S. decision alone on how we proceed. This is a partnership with Mexico. The programs, the projects, the training that occur under Merida aren’t static. They can be adapted to the needs that both partners see on the ground.”

Congress has allocated $300 million for the Merida Initiative this year, $150 million less than had been requested, but Duguid said the amount was “ample” and “we will move forward on that basis.”

The escalating violence _ which has killed thousands, mostly south of the border _ has set off alarm bells in the U.S. and triggered a State Department travel alert last month that compared recent confrontations between Mexican authorities and the cartels to “small-unit combat.”

Mexican officials say the violence killed 6,290 people last year and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009.

Despite the warning, timed to coincide with Spring Break when thousands of American students head to Mexican beaches and resorts, U.S. officials have stressed that the violence is “localized” and a reaction to the strong steps being taken by the government of President Felipe Calderon against the cartels.

Clinton’s visit to Monterrey, an industrial city near the Texas border, is in part intended to signal that the Obama administration does not believe Mexico is unsafe. In October and November, unidentified gunmen fired shots outside the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey in three incidents, including one in which a grenade was thrown but failed to explode.

Still, U.S. officials regard the cartels as the biggest organized crime threat facing the United States and the spiraling violence has worried lawmakers and authorities in border states and stirred calls from some to send American troops to the border.

Obama said this week he had no desire to “militarize” the border, but the Department of Homeland Security has outlined plans to protect the border that include, as a last resort, deploying military personnel and equipment to the region if other agencies are overwhelmed.

In its annual survey of global counter-narcotics efforts, the State Department in February painted a grim picture of the situation in Mexico, where it said Calderon was taking “courageous” and “unprecedented” steps to combat the drug trade but was hindered by rampant corruption.

Mexico is the main transit point for cocaine entering the U.S. and a source for much of the heroin, marijuana and methamphetine consumed in America, the department said, adding that there had been an increase in contract killings and kidnappings on U.S. soil carried out by Mexican drug cartels, sometimes using weapons that were purchased or stolen in America.

It also said that firearms obtained in the U.S. account for an estimated 95 percent of the country’s drug-related killings.

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