, MEXICO CITY, Mar 23 – Chief US diplomat Hillary Clinton leads a senior delegation to Mexico on Tuesday, barely a week after US consulate-linked killings galvanised attention on the country\’s surging drug violence.
On the eve of the talks, US President Barack Obama spoke with his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon to "underscore his administration\’s commitment to the strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico," National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement.
The pair discussed their "mutual desire to work together for the benefit of the safety and security of citizens on both sides of our shared border," he added.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will accompany Clinton for the talks with top Mexican security officials.
The meeting is set to focus on the Merida Initiative, a $1.6billion program of aid to fight organised crime. Most of the funds in the program, due to expire in 2011, are allocated to Mexico, with the rest going to other countries in Central America.
Mexico has been gripped by drug-related bloodshed around its northern border and other areas since Calderon launched a military clampdown on the country\’s powerful drug gangs after taking office in December 2006.
More than 15,000 people have died since then in suspected drug attacks, which are increasingly affecting innocent bystanders.
In some of the latest attacks, suspected drug gang members engaged in shootouts with police around the northern economic hub of Monterrey and hijacked cars to set up scores of roadblocks last week. Two students died in the crossfire.
The three killings linked to the US consulate in the northern city of Ciudad Juarez on March 13 brought renewed US attention on the problem.
US law enforcers across the border in El Paso, Texas last week rounded up members of the Barrio Azteca gang – hitmen for the Juarez drug gang known as Los Aztecas in Mexico – who are thought to have carried out the killings of a US consulate employee, her husband and the husband of another staff member.
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico\’s most violent city, has been a testing ground for Calderon\’s crackdown, which includes the deployment of some 50,000 troops nationwide.
But protests by residents frustrated with a spiralling death toll and growing crime greeted Calderon when he visited the city last week.
As the violence continues, Calderon\’s temporary replacement of notoriously corrupt police officers with soldiers is under increasing scrutiny, not just in border areas but also near the renowned Pacific beach resort of Acapulco, and other areas.
The army\’s record has also suffered from complaints about its sometimes brutal treatment of suspects.
Tuesday\’s high-level US-Mexico meeting was expected to focus on long-term strategies for security cooperation.
The Obama administration was the first last year to admit joint US responsibility for Mexico\’s drug violence, recognizing the role of US drug appetites and the flow of weapons from north to south.
During his telephone call with Calderon, Obama "highlighted the importance he places on fulfilling our responsibility in the effort against Mexican drug trafficking organizations as well as our sustained commitment to support Mexico\’s efforts," Hammer said.
Analysts have hailed improved cooperation, including scores of extraditions of cartel leaders from Mexico to the United States, and a mass arrest of Mexican drug gang members north of the border last year.
But critics on both sides say the United States could do more, particularly in intelligence sharing collaboration. Only a fraction of the 1.3 billion earmarked for Mexico under the Merida Initiative has so far been delivered.