[h2]Calderón challenges Obama on drugs war[/h2]
By Adam Thomson in Mexico City
Published: March 27 2009 02:00
Felipe Calderón has called on the new US administration to contribute potentially tens of billons of dollars in additional funds to help Mexico fight its war on drugs.
In an interview with the Financial Times, the Mexican president said that -neither the financial aid offered so far by Washington, nor US efforts to curb illegal activity along its 2,000-mile border had proved sufficient.
"The help should be equivalent to the flow of money that American consumers give to the criminals," he said in reference to US citizens' consumption of narcotics supplied by Mexico's drug cartels. When asked to estimate that sum, Mr Calderón replied: "Between $10bn and $35bn (€30bn, £24bn) - the truth is that nobody knows."
Mexico's centre-right premier has long insisted on the need for more commitment from Washington but this is the first time he has been so outspoken on the issue since he declared an all-out war on the narcotics industry just over two years ago. Since then, combating the cartels has become the overriding focus of his administration.
Mr Calderón's suggested figure dwarfs the scale of funding that Washington has promised Mexico to date. Congress last month approved a $300m package as part of the Merida Initiative, a three-year programme to help Mexico fight the cartels - $150m less than the US administration had asked for and $100m less than last year's budget.
Mr Calderón, who made no effort to hide his disappointment at the scaling back of the funding, said: "Obviously the money is not enough, particularly if the amount is reduced like that."
In addition to extra funds, Mr Calderón said that the US had to do more to reduce domestic drug consumption, as well as crack down on the illegal flow of arms from the US into Mexico.
Officials on both sides of the border estimate that 90 per cent of the arms used by Mexican cartels come from the US.
"If we want to address this problem seriously, there has to be a far greater commitment [by the US administration]," said Mr Calderón.
The force of that message is unlikely to be lost on Washington, which has expressed growing concern about Mexico's bloody war and is sending a slew of top-ranking officials south of the border in the coming weeks to discuss security issues.
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, yesterday concluded a two-day visit to Mexico and Barack Obama, US president, has confirmed that he will stop off in Mexico in mid-April on his way to the summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, signalled yesterday that Mr Obama also favoured an assault weapons ban.
Washington's concern is hardly surprising: more than 6,000 people were murdered in drug-related violence in Mexico last year - roughly three times the figure for 2007.
About 200 of those victims were decapitated, and some were found diced and left in vats of acid.
Much of the violence has occurred along the country's northern border, which is shared by California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Mr Calderón was this month forced to send 7,000 soldiers and federal police to take over Ciudad Juárez, the city that neighbours El Paso, Texas and is home to many US manufacturing companies.
The decision came after local authorities admitted that a turf war between two competing cartels for Juárez's smuggling routes into the US as well as dominance of the local market was spiralling out of control.
Most of all, Mr Calderón's message is likely to catch the attention of the US secretary of state.
Mrs Clinton has admitted that the US shared the blame for the growing violence in Mexico. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she conceded on her flight to Mexico.
"Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and -civilians."
Mr Calderón, who met Mrs Clinton on Wednesday, welcomed what he described as "a change, not only in the discourse, but also in the attitude of the American government", towards Mexico's war on drugs.
During her trip to Mexico, Mrs Clinton emphasised that Congress has now authorised a total of $700m for the Merida Initiative and that the US wants to speed up its delivery of military hardware to Mexico.
Speaking at an event with Mexico's foreign minister, she added that the Obama administration would try to work with Congress to provide $80m for Blackhawk helicopters for Mexico.
Mrs Clinton yesterday also signalled her support for a new US assault weapons ban. "I think these assault weapons, these military-style weapons, don't belong on anyone's street," she told NBC, while acknowledging that reinstating the 1990s ban was politically a "very heavy lift".