Will the Hillary Clinton Mexico visit bring a drug war shift?

A high-level US delegation meets with Mexican officials today to discuss bilateral strategies for tackling the drug war. But will there be any changes during the Hillary Clinton Mexico visit?

Miguel Tovar/AP
People walk across a US-Mexico border crossing in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 17. Will the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Mexico City today to discuss US aid for Mexico to fight organized crime bring any changes?

The visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Mexico City today to discuss US aid for Mexico to fight organized crime underscores a sense of urgency in Washington after an American couple was slaughtered in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez earlier this month.

But many hope the high-level delegation, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, also marks a new strategy by both countries to stem violence that appears to be closer than ever to US soil and that has propelled swaths of Mexico into a state of crisis.

“It’s a way of really showing the US commitment to helping and enabling this fight, but it’s also to transmit serious concerns about the limitations of the approach,” says David Mena Alemán, director of international studies at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s dispatching of more than 45,000 military and federal police across the country to fight organized crime. “The consequences are getting way out of hand.”

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Losing faith

The tipping point in Mexico came in January after a massacre in Ciudad Juarez, mostly of teens with no ties to organized crime. Residents demanded an end to the military-led strategy, which has been both heralded and condemned, as 18,000 have lost their lives since it was spearheaded in December 2006.

For the first time, more Mexicans surveyed nationwide by the ISA polling firm said they disapprove of the work that Mr. Calderón is doing: 53 percent disapprove, while 45 percent approve, according to the survey results.

On Friday, two men killed during a shootout between the military and gunmen were later identified as innocent bystanders, graduate students from a prestigious university in Monterrey, one of Mexico’s largest cities. There, suspected drug lords have blocked highways recently with giant trucks, snarling traffic in what officials call an attempt to display their power.

President Calderón has responded with an ambitious new programs in Ciudad Juarez – which officials say could be replicated elsewhere – to focus on tackling the causes of crime, such as a lack of job opportunities, low education, and poverty.

“They have started to move toward addressing a wider set of issues rather than just the policing of gangs,” says Mr. Mena Alemán.

The Merida Initiative

There is also a sense in the US that the roots of violence must be addressed, as the nation strategizes how to extend funding for the aid package called the Merida Initiative.

The strategy includes a four-pronged approach that prioritizes the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations, capacity to improve Mexico’s rule of law, the creation of a border that both encourages commerce but is more secure, and the acknowledgement that the drivers of violence must also be tackled.

The plan could be unveiled today.

“When you talk to US officials, there is a component of social development, as well as the rule of law,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

The visit by the delegation was already planned, as part of talks to discuss the Merida plan, which was put into place during the Bush administration and included three years of funding. It is likely to be extended in a “phase two” after it wraps up this year.

New urgency

But many say the meeting has taken on a new sense of urgency after the killings of the American couple, one of whom worked at the US consulate and was pregnant. Another Mexican citizen, the husband of another consular employee, was also gunned down in a separate attack.

The ideals of “co-responsibility” will be touted today. And the fact that Defense Secretary Gates is arriving underlies the US commitment to Calderón’s strategy, says Dan Lund, the president of the MUND Group in Mexico City. “The US is sending its secretary of defense in the midst of two wars,” Mr. Lund says. “This is a watershed meeting.”

Those Mexicans who do not support the government strategy say the meeting will do little to appease their concerns of spiraling violence. Julio César Mendoza, who recently retired as a chef on a cruise liner, says that he believes both governments have good intentions – but the problem can only be solved if demand for illicit drugs in the US and its supply of arms are addressed.

These are common complaints from Mexico – ones the US has acknowledged – but Mr. Mendoza also thinks drugs should be legalized to deflate the multi-billion dollar industry that boosts the drug cartels.

“It’s like a hamburger. I love hamburgers, and look for them wherever I am,” says Mendoza. “If someone gave me sushi, even for free, I wouldn’t eat it. If hamburgers were illegal, I would still look for them. Drugs are the same way. Some will always seek them, some will never touch them.”

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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