WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will on Wednesday travel to Mexico to spearhead a high-level drive to curb growing drug violence that has raised alarm in Washington.
Clinton's trip paves the way for a flurry of visits culminating in one in April by President Barack Obama, who analysts say is breaking with predecessor George W. Bush's drug-fighting approach by focusing on blunting US consumer demand.
The Obama administration is also trying to share more of the counter-narcotics burden with Mexico than its predecessor while also aiming to beef up security on the border, they said.
"They are putting a lot of the cabinet on this, including the president himself," Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told AFP.
"And I think that is a statement of how seriously they're taking the relationship," he added.
Clinton - whose two-day trip includes stops in Mexico City and Monterrey - will be followed in a week by Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Obama is to travel to a summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on April 16-17 after having met him eight days before taking office in January. Calderon has stressed the drug problem is a common one, rather than a Mexican one.
The series of visits - which follow one earlier this month by Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military officer - underlined the new administration's alarm over the escalating violence, which is spilling over the border.
Experts say the bloodshed is fed by easy access to guns and drug profits in the United States.
But analysts say the Obama administration is taking a different approach to the Bush administration, which focused on helping the Mexican government defeat the drug cartels.
"They see this as an actual shared responsibility, that we have to actually do something about consumption, the money and the guns on our side of the border," Selee said.
"I think that is a change in focus, actually."
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counter-narcotics expert at the Brookings Institution, said it could take years before the administration reaps benefits from its new approach to blunt consumer demand, which she calls the "crux of the problem."
In the meantime, she expects Clinton and others to cooperate more on choking off the flow of weapons from thousands of weapons stores on the US side of the border, even if she doubts how effective it can be.
"There are many other sources apart from the US, from which the cartels or the trafficking organizations could acquire weapons," Felbab-Brown told AFP.
"But I think diplomatically it's very important that the US makes an effort to show to the Mexican authorities as well as to the Mexican public that we share responsibility," she said.
"Just like we share responsibility for demand, we are aware that we are the source of weapons and we take efforts against them," she added.
Even with plans to beef up law enforcement on the border, she said, it is "excruciatingly difficult" to find weapons when, for example, only one or two of them are hidden in the chassis of a car.
Christopher Sabatini, a top analyst at the Americas Society and Council of the America, urged the administration to challenge the National Rifle Association gun lobby over the weapons supply stores.
They should "go to the mat on it with the NRA," he said.
Clinton's talks fall under counter-drug cooperation under the Merida Initiative, a program by which the United States has shared intelligence with its southern neighbor and provided it with training and equipment.
Sabatini said he believed that the administration, because of "the enormity of the problem," will have to push Congress to reverse funding cutbacks for the initiative that was launched under the Bush administration.
Calderon launched a wide-ranging crackdown on drug cartels soon after taking office in late 2006. The cartels in turn hit back with ever-higher levels of violence and intimidation.
Some 5,300 people were murdered in drug violence across Mexico in 2008.
Cocaine is produced in South America, but the Mexican cartels control most of the multi-billion-dollar trade.
During her trip, Clinton will also discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement and preparations for an April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, US officials say.
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