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Clinton Sets Mexico Trip to Discuss Drug Violence, Economics

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Mexico later this month on a trip aimed in part at underscoring U.S. support for the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon and its crackdown on drug gangs. Clinton is to visit Mexico City and Monterrey on the two-day trip beginning March 25.

Drug-related violence in Mexico is believed to have killed more than 7,000 people since the beginning of last year. But the Obama administration is stressing its support for the Calderon government and its ability to control the country's territory, and says travel by Americans to their southern neighbor is still relatively safe.

The State Department said Friday Clinton will visit Mexico at the invitation of Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa for talks on issues of mutual concern including global economics and the Merida initiative, under which the United States is providing Mexico with aid and expertise to combat the drug cartels.

The drug violence, which has been concentrated in Mexican towns along the U.S. border, has generated concern among would-be American travelers to Mexico, accentuated by cautionary State Department travel alerts about the situation

But under questioning Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid said the United States has confidence in the Calderon government's ability to deal with the situation and said recent violence, to some extent, reflects the success of its efforts against drug gangs.

"These cartels wanted to have things their own way. And the President [Calderon] has refused to accept that and has taken them on, and they have responded with violence. Some of the violence is between the gangs themselves and some of it is against the police and the other law enforcement authorities. So while we are concerned about the violence in these localized areas, we congratulate the Mexican government for taking on the problem," he said.

Duguid said Secretary Clinton's stop in Monterrey, a major industrial city near the U.S. border, shows that the Obama administration does not consider the city unsafe.

The State Department's most recent travel alert for Mexico, issued last month as many American college students began spring-break vacations at Mexican beach resorts, urged common-sense precautions such as limiting travel to well-known tourist sites and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug-dealing might occur.

In its annual report on the global drug trade, also issued last month, the State Department said Mexico is the main transit point for cocaine entering the United States and also a major source of other drugs including heroin and methamphetamines.

It cited an increase in criminal activity by Mexican drug cartels on U.S. soil, and said most military-style weapons being used by Mexican gangs were either purchased or stolen in the United States.

The U.S. Congress has authorized $300 million for Merida initiative funding to Mexico this year, $150 million less than the Bush administration's original request. However spokesman Duguid said the amount is ample, and the new administration is prepared to move forward with the aid program at that funding level.

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