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Drug violence rages as Obama lands in Mexico

Latest update : 2009-04-17

US President Barack Obama arrived in Mexico Thursday only hours after 16 people were killed in a clash between drug hitmen and soldiers. The shootout underscored the gravity of Mexico's drug trafficking problem.

AFP - US President Barack Obama traveled to Mexico Thursday as his administration upped efforts to tackle Mexico's violent drug cartels, with 16 killed in the latest clash just hours before he arrived.

The visit will be Obama's first to Latin America since taking office in January and includes talks with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, who has gambled his presidency on the battle against drug traffickers.

The economic crisis was also set to top the agenda in the closely-tied US neighbor.

Sixteen people died in a shootout between suspected drug hitmen and soldiers in Guerrero in southwest Mexico late Wednesday, state prosecutor Eduardo Murueta told AFP on Thursday.

Some 7,000 people have died since the start of last year in violence between Mexican cartels and security forces, which is spilling across the US border.

Obama's trip follows a wave of high-level US visits south of the border, which have marked a shift in the US stance toward Mexico and its trafficking problem since he took office in January.

On the eve of his visit, Obama slapped sanctions on three drug cartels and named a top US official to stiffen enforcement on the southern US border.

"I think that President Calderon has done an outstanding and heroic job in dealing with what is a big problem right now along the borders with the drug cartels," Obama said in an interview with CNN recorded Wednesday.

Analysts say Obama has been more willing than his predecessor George W. Bush to acknowledge that -- as the world's largest consumer of cocaine -- the US shares responsibility for Mexican gang activity.

Obama last month announced extra agents for the US border, and also vowed to staunch US demand for drugs.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in Mexico last month that US failure to prevent illicit weapons and cash from being smuggled into Mexico -- a key concern here -- had contributed to the violence.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates that around 90 percent of weapons confiscated in Mexico come from the United States.

Mexican President Calderon -- who has deployed tens of thousands of troops across the country to take on the cartels -- has praised the "constructive attitude" of the Obama administration.

But the two leaders will also face difficult talks on the economic crisis, trade, and immigration.

Obama was expected to reassure Mexico on economic cooperation before taking the same message to regional leaders at an Americas Summit in Trinidad and Tobago, which starts on Friday.

"The United States is working to advance prosperity in the (western) hemisphere by jumpstarting our own recovery," Obama said in an op-ed published in regional newspapers Thursday.

Trade relations have been tense since Mexico last month slapped some 2.4 billion dollars in tariffs on 89 US products, after Washington cancelled a program authorizing some Mexican trucks to operate in the United States.

The US move violated the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexico's retaliation sparked a first trade challenge for Obama, with more than 150 industrial giants calling for an end to the spat.

Immigration is also key, although the economic crisis has raised doubts over Obama's plans to begin a push for comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Mexico, Latin America's second biggest economy, depends on the United States for around 80 percent of its exports and most of its remittances, with some 12 million legal and illegal Mexicans in the United States.

Date created : 2009-04-16

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