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US announces broader approach in fight against drug trafficking

For the first time, the U.S. announces millions in non-military assistance to Mexico.

Bus drivers and food vendors wait for business in front of a maquiladora, or factory, on March 23, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Mexico on Tuesday for discussions centered on Mexico's endemic drug-related violence. The border city of Juarez has been racked by drug-related crime recently and has quickly become one of the most dangerous cities in the world. As drug cartels have been fighting over lucrative drug corridors along the United States border, the annual murder rate in Juarez has risen to 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The big question for both the United States and Mexico is whether or not to continue with a heavily militarized approach in the fight against drug traffickers. With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement Tuesday, the Obama administration seems to be voting no.

Following her meeting with Mexican officials, Clinton announced a shift in U.S. funding, revealing that more than $300 million in American aid to Mexico will go toward non-military assistance.

While the Merida Initiative requires the United States to provide Mexico with more than $1.3 billion to help fight the country’s powerful drug cartels, Clinton’s announcement marks a first in terms of non-military assistance.

"This new agenda expands our focus beyond disrupting drug trafficking organizations — which will remain a core element of our cooperation — and encompasses challenges such as strengthening institutions, creating a 21st century border, and building strong, resilient communities," Clinton told reporters during a press conference in Mexico City.

“The Merida Initiative was originally envisioned as a three-year effort,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet before the event. “Both governments recognize that there is more to be done. Part of the purpose of this meeting is looking where we can go beyond, what the next steps are on this, whether you want to call that a continuation of the Merida Initiative or, as some people have said, Merida 2.0.”

The meeting comes little more than a week after the killings of three people tied to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, across the frontier from El Paso, Texas. Despite nearly 19,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderon began his offensive against the cartels in early 2007, the consulate killings have given new impetus to rethinking the arrangement.

The importance of the meeting was underscored by its long list of high-level attendees. Clinton was joined by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen, along with top immigration and drug enforcement directors.

“To have them all in one place is pretty unprecedented in how the U.S. manages its foreign affairs and it’s definitely unprecedented in Mexican history,” said John Ackerman, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Despite Clinton’s focus on new, non-military aid, the presence of defense officials like Gates and Mullen suggests U.S. is ramping up — not scaling down — its military involvement, Ackerman said.

“This is a military meeting, which is worrisome in so far as it makes one think that perhaps what we’re going to get is more of the same” militarized approach, he said.