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Hillary Clinton to Mexico: The US feels your pain

The secretary of state's humility in reaching out to Mexico is part of Obama's plan to change sinking world opinion of the US.

By Warren P. StrobelMcClatchy Newspapers / March 28, 2009



MONTERREY, Mexico

In her years on the political stage, Hillary Clinton wasn't always seen as the most humble of national figures.

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Yet in a two-day trip through Mexico that ended Thursday, Secretary of State Clinton has served up humility at every stop.

She's acknowledged in no uncertain terms that the bloody drug wars here are, in part, America's fault.

She's compared the 7,000-plus deaths in drug violence over the last 15 months to the crime wave that hit the US in the 1980s and '90s.

"There are problems in any country. I spend my time thinking about the problems in my country as well," Clinton told students and faculty in Monterrey on the campus of Universidad TecMilenio, a high-tech private university with campuses, real and virtual, across the country.

Clinton's tone is part of a conscious public diplomacy effort by President Barack Obama's administration to change world opinion of the US, which sank deeply during his predecessor's eight years, due to the war in Iraq, the treatment of detainees, and other actions.

The approach by Clinton, who's on her first trip as top US diplomat to Latin America, seemed to be playing well.

Mexico, like many other countries in the hemisphere, has often bristled at what it sees as arrogance and hypocrisy from its larger, richer, and more populous neighbor.

Mexicans have objected to US news coverage of Mexico that's focused solely on the drug problem – and to statements by top American officials suggesting this country is on its way to becoming a failing state, not in control of all of its territory.

"It seems to me, it starts with tone," former US ambassador to Mexico James Jones said in an interview before Clinton arrived here. "The tone should be, the US and Mexican governments have one common enemy, that's organized crime."

A US military report warned in January that drug-fueled violence threatened to topple the Mexican government. Dennis Blair, the national intelligence director, told reporters on Thursday, however: "Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state." He said the growing violence is a result of the Mexican government's campaign against drug traffickers, and added: "The Mexican campaign is our campaign."

In her speech at the university in Monterrey, Clinton tried to steer the discussion of US-Mexico relations away from the drug issue, speaking about the commercial ties and global interests that increasingly bind the two nations.

To reinforce the point, she later visited a modern bio-gas plant that's producing renewable energy.

"I think it has been unfortunate that the courageous fight that Mexico has waged against the drug cartels has gotten so much attention, to the exclusion of all the other issues," she said in response to a question.

The drug wars, however, were never far from the surface of Clinton's trip.

Monterrey has been the scene in recent months of at least two anti-US attacks that have been linked to narcotics traffickers.

In the most serious, assailants struck the US consulate here in October, firing guns and throwing grenades over the wall, although they didn't explode. Mexican officials have arrested a suspect who's allegedly tied to one of the country's leading crime barons.

In Mexico City, Clinton visited the modern new Iztapalapa base for Mexico's federal police. With US financial help, the federal police is trying to improve its ability to confront organized crime, a task now largely undertaken by the military. During her brief stay, Clinton saw a simulated hostage rescue and was briefed on missions undertaken by US-made Blackhawk helicopters, which were on display.

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