At U.S.-Mexico Summit, A New Take On Drug War

A high-level mission to Mexico on Tuesday highlighted a new U.S. take on Mexico's drug war. For decades, Mexico has insisted that the U.S. must reduce its appetite for narcotics. On Tuesday, the U.S. government responded to Mexico: Yes, we can, and we should. Robert Siegel talks to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who was in Mexico on Tuesday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A high level mission to Mexico yesterday featured a new U.S. take on Mexico's war on drugs. We have seen the enemies and one of them is us. For decades, Mexico has insisted the U.S. must reduce its appetite for narcotics. And yesterday, the U.S. government responded to Mexico, yes, we can and we should.

This is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Mexico City.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): We know that the demand for drugs drives much of this elicit trade. That guns purchased in the United States, as we saw some of the examples outside, are used to facilitate violence here in Mexico. And the United States must and is doing its part to help you and us meet those challenges.

SIEGEL: Also on yesterday's trip were Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who joins us now from our office. Welcome.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Homeland Security): Welcome.

SIEGEL: Secretary Clinton seemed to unveil a new approach to helping fight the drug war in Mexico, is that a fair statement?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: I think it's a renewed emphasis. The Secretary of State had said last year that demand for drugs in the United States was part of the fuel for these cartels that have just grown in size, complexity and stature in Mexico over the last years. And we, you know, I think we in the United States need to acknowledge that, even as we work with Mexico to defeat the cartels.

SIEGEL: Before getting onto what Mexico is doing, is the U.S. actually succeeding in reducing demand? And what more can U.S. law enforcement do that it's not doing right now to try to reduce the demand?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, it's not just law enforcement, it's all of us. And indeed, the drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who is himself a former police chief, was with us on the trip and will be releasing within the next days a national drug control strategy, which will be focused on how do you intervene, particularly with young people, to make sure that they don't experiment? And if they experiment, they don't become a user.

SIEGEL: That would seem to be, though, a long-term approach to dealing with this problem.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Indeed.

SIGEL: That would bear fruit over the years, not over the coming months.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Indeed. That's right. And so, in the interim, what we are focused on with Mexico is strengthening their law enforcement capacity, going after the cartels both the leadership, but also others involved in this very, very violent struggle within Mexico just south of our border. You know, Ciudad Juarez, which is literally over a bridge from El Paso, Texas, has an enormously high homicide rate, including a week ago Saturday, three individuals associated with the United States consulate there.

So, working with Mexico in a law enforcement, civilian law enforcement and military way against the drug violence and strengthening our own protections at the border.

SIEGEL: What can you tell us, by the way, about the killings in Juarez? Can you claim any progress in that investigation now?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: I really shouldn't talk about an ongoing investigation. What I can say is that literally hundreds of agents are now involved.

SIEGEL: Here's another dimension to this problem: Mexico has committed its military to the fight against the drug cartels. A recent State Department report accused the Mexican military of human rights abuses in the course of fighting the drug war. Given those concerns, is having the Mexican military fight this drug war the best option?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, I think in Ciudad Juarez, which is where they've been deployed, it has been for a time the only option. There simply hasn't been enough civilian law enforcement to put on the streets there now. That is changing over time and the human rights issues are being addressed. They also were specifically discussed yesterday in our high level meetings. But the plain fact of the matter is, is that you have to have order in the streets and you have to reestablish the rule of law.

SIEGEL: Is there any role, any potential role for the U.S. military south of the border in Mexico?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Well, indeed the chairman of the joint chiefs was at our meeting, Mike Mullen, Secretary Gates I already mentioned, meeting with their military counterparts. And I think you can deduce from that that there are discussions about the proper role for our military. And beyond that I think it would not be appropriate to comment.

SIEGEL: I mean, you know, I'm sure, better than I that this is a neuralgic subject for Mexicans, for the U.S. military presence in Mexico.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: It is, and it is only being done at the request of and with consultation and cooperation with the Mexicans. This is not the United States unilaterally going in. This is cooperative. It is as assistance. It is a mutual recognition that as two neighboring countries, we all have something at stake here.

I mentioned yesterday, but, you know, there's a billion dollars worth of commerce every day that goes across that Mexican border. People need to be able to go back and forth and transit across that border without fear for, you know, that they will be the victim of a violent crime. And that people who live on the border communities just south of our border need to know that the rule of law will be applied.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear here, are you saying that President Calderon has expressed an openness toward a uniformed U.S. military presence within Mexico?

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Yes. Let me be very, very clear 'cause this is a very delicate subject that our military in certain limited ways, has been working with the Mexican military in their efforts against the drug cartels. But it is at the request of the Mexican government, in consultation with the Mexican government and it is only one part of our overall efforts with Mexico, which are primarily civilian in nature.

SIEGEL: Well, Secretary Napolitano, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Sec. NAPOLITANO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security. She was on the mission to Mexico yesterday and she spoke to us from her office in Washington, D.C.

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