US, Mexico agree to revamp fight against drug cartels

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The United States and Mexico agreed Friday to overhaul their fight against drug trafficking to address the root causes and step up efforts to curb cross-border arms smuggling.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants Washington to invest in regional economic development instead of sending helicopter gunships and other weapons to take on powerful drug cartels.

Both countries said it was time for a rethink after more than a decade during which the United States provided military firepower, technical support and security training under a program called the Merida Initiative.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his first visit to Mexico as the top US diplomat, said more needed to be done in areas including tackling arms trafficking, money laundering and drug addiction.

"Law enforcement has a critical role in reducing homicides and other serious crimes," said Blinken, who was accompanied by a delegation including US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

"But its efforts have to be matched by investments in growing economic opportunity, particularly for underserved communities and regions," he told reporters.

Under the Merida Initiative, the United States has given Mexico about $3 billion since 2008 for law enforcement training and equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.

At the same time, US authorities have focused on helping Mexico to arrest drug kingpins like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and send them to the United States to face trial.

"We've already seen that it's not enough to capture some cartel bosses. We have to make sure that addictions do not increase," Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

- Merida Initiative 'dead' -

Lopez Obrador hailed a "new phase" in relations, reiterating an invitation to US President Joe Biden to visit Mexico.

The Mexican leader 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.

Blinken noted that Biden was seeking US funding of around $4 billion to address the roots of irregular migration, in particular in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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.

Blinken recognized that tackling arms trafficking, particularly from the United States, was a priority for Mexico.

"We're committed to deepening our collaboration on arms tracing, and investigations and prosecutions to disrupt the supply chain," he said.

In August, the Mexican government 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.

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.

"If measured according to whether it reduced drug trafficking and violence in Mexico or stemmed the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico, it clearly failed," Shifter added.

"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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