Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flies to Mexico Wednesday for a two-day visit aimed at showing support for Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his government's crackdown on drug cartels. On the eve of the trip, the Obama administration announced new steps to curb border traffic in drugs, illicit money and weapons.
Secretary Clinton will be the first in a parade of senior administration officials to visit Mexico to lay groundwork for President Obama's two-day visit in mid-April for talks with President Calderon.
The two neighbors have a heavy load of problem issues including trade disputes and illegal immigration. But the agenda has recently been dominated by drug-related violence mainly in Mexican towns along the border spurred by a crackdown on drug gangs by the Calderon government.
Clashes between traffickers and security forces and internecine fighting among rival gangs has killed an estimated seven thousand people since the beginning of last year and spurred concerns by some analysts about the overall stability of Mexico.
Administration officials say a principal aim of the visits, and the new U.S. efforts along the border, is to underscore support for Mr. Calderon and dispel concern about Mexican stability.
At the White House roll-out of the border program Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said the new administration sees relations with Mexico as a critical partnership and one that requires as much high-level attention as any relationship the United States has.
"The President has already developed his own ties with President Calderon, the fact that he will be making an early visit himself to Mexico before the Summit of the Americas, really represents the importance that we attach to it. And the Secretary [Clinton] really wants to stress that while we have a critical set of issues that we need to deal with in terms of law enforcement, counter-narcotics, guns and the like and the violence problem, that we really value Mexico as a partner across-the-board and the leadership that President Calderon has shown in courageously taking on this challenge," he said.
The administration plan announced Tuesday calls for the deployment of more federal agents, experts and equipment to the Mexican border region to curb drug shipment headed into the United States and weapons and drug payments going the other direction.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who will visit Mexico with U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder next week, says the United States will provide $700 million worth of aid this year - including helicopters - to help Mexican forces apprehend and prosecute drug criminals.
Clinton will meet President Calderon and Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa in Mexico City Wednesday and visit the industrial city of Monterrey near the U.S. border before returning to Washington late Thursday.
A senior State Department official said she added the Monterrey stop to highlight Mexican high-tech companies and research on renewable energy and show that the bilateral relationship should not be pigeon-holed (defined) by the media focus on issues like drugs and crime.
Clinton and other administration officials are aiming to resolve, before President Obama's visit next month, a simmering dispute over access to the United States by Mexican truckers that has prompted a retaliatory set of Mexican tariffs on U.S. goods.