Senior officials of the United States and Mexico Friday reaffirmed their commitment to combat cross-border drug trafficking and organized crime under the 2007 Merida Initiative. The U.S. Congress approved $400 million in anti-drug aid to Mexico earlier this year.

The ministerial-level meeting brought together senior diplomatic, defense, law-enforcement, and anti-drug officials of the two governments and underlined growing mutual concern about drug-related violence on both sides of the border, but especially in northern Mexico.

At a news conference with Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S.-Mexican partnership is indispensable in breaking the "power and impunity" of drug gangs, whose internecine warfare on the Mexican side of the border this year has claimed more than 1,000 lives.

Foreign Secretary Espinosa said the Merida program, launched by President Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in March of last year, has raised joint anti-drug cooperation to unprecedented levels. She spoke through an interpreter:

"This is an initiative that presents a great opportunity so that, together, Mexico and the United States can be more effective in addressing what is a shared threat and that is trans-national organized crime. The drug market leads to crimes in money-laundering, in pre-cursor chemicals, in weapons trafficking, in corruption, and a growing level of violence that affects our societies on both sides of the border," she said.

The $400 million aid package approved by Congress in June is intended as a down-payment on a multi-year, $1.4 billion aid program. The two countries signed a letter of agreement earlier this month transferring the first $200 million, which is to go to, among other things, enhancing the technical capabilities of Mexican anti-crime police units.

There has been criticism in Mexico that a 2004 decision by President Bush to allow a ban on U.S. sales of semi-automatic assault weapons to lapse has led to an increase in the number of such weapons in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But at the press event with Espinosa, Rice said the connection is unproven:

"I follow arms trafficking across the world, and I've never known illegal arms traffickers who cared very much very much about the law. And so I simply don't accept the notion that the lifting of the ban somehow has led arms traffickers to increase their activities. Arms traffickers by their very nature don't care about the law. And so whatever law is in place, their business is to get around it," she said.

For her part, Foreign Secretary Espinosa declined to criticize Bush administration policy on the issue, saying Mexico respects the sovereignty and independence of the United States at all levels.

A joint statement from Friday's meeting said the two neighbors will set up a working-level implementation mechanism for Merida initiative programs in Mexico City by the end of next year, and that another ministerial-level meeting should be held in the second half of 2009.