US, Mexico seek to revamp fight against drug cartels

US, Mexico seek to revamp fight against drug cartels

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador talks with a US delegation including Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a working breakfast in Mexico City
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador talks with a US delegation including Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a working breakfast in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY - The United States and Mexico began talks Friday on overhauling their joint fight against drug cartels, during a visit by a high-level delegation including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said Mexico no longer wants helicopter gunships and other weapons to combat drug traffickers, urging the United States to invest in regional economic development instead.

On his first visit to Mexico as the top US diplomat, Blinken, accompanied by a delegation including US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, held a working breakfast with Lopez Obrador and other top Mexican officials.

"I believe that together we will be able to enter a new phase" in relations, Lopez Obrador said in opening remarks at the National Palace, reiterating an invitation to US President Joe Biden to visit Mexico.

After a tour of the building with Lopez Obrador, Blinken said that he had "a very powerful vision for where that relationship can and should go."

Washington has indicated that it is ready to revamp a 13-year-old program called the Merida Initiative that provided US military firepower, technical support and security training.

"We believe we are due for an updated look at our bilateral security cooperation," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Washington wanted to see the "significant gains" made by the Merida Initiative "preserved, that that cooperation is deepened and that we have an updated approach that accounts for the threats of today," he said.

The Mexican government wants to scrap the Merida Initiative.

"We don't want it to be like it was before when they brought us a helicopter gunship and a photo was taken of the US ambassador with the president," Lopez Obrador said in June.

The United States has given Mexico about $3 billion since 2008 for law enforcement training and equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.

Lopez Obrador argues that investing in development projects in the region would help counter not only drug trafficking but also migrant flows -- another major challenge facing the two countries.

Underscoring the magnitude of the crisis, Mexican authorities said Friday they had detained 652 undocumented migrants, more than half of them children, traveling toward the US border in refrigerated truck containers.

- Merida Initiative 'dead' -

Mexico will use the talks to push for steps to speed up extraditions between the two countries and reduce the flow of arms from the United States, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said this week.

In August, Mexico filed an unprecedented lawsuit against major US gunmakers in a Boston court over illegal cross-border arms flows that it blames for fueling drug-related violence.

Mexico is plagued by cartel-related bloodshed that has seen more than 300,000 people murdered since the government deployed the military in the war on drugs in 2006.

Many experts believe the strategy of militarization has failed because it has resulted in the cartels being fragmented into smaller, more violent cells, while drugs continue to flood into the United States.

The new security framework will focus "not just on crime, but also on the underlying cause of crime," a senior US administration official said.

"We're going to be looking at ways we can increase joint efforts to decrease demand for narcotics," he said.

The two countries would continue to pursue the cartels, including their laboratories and supply chain, the official said.

But the new strategy would put more emphasis on stopping flows of firearms and drug money from the United States to Mexico, in order to "deny revenue to these cartels," he added.

Forging a new joint strategy will not be easy, said Michael Shifter, president of the US-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.

"The Merida Initiative is indeed dead," he said.

"Mexico is expected to press for significant US assistance and investment in the southern part of the country, but with budget pressures and other priorities in Washington, US officials are unlikely to be receptive," he said.

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