Conflict in the White House over the war on America's doorstep

Only time will show if Mexico is indeed sliding into drug-war anarchy like that which gripped Colombia in the 1980s. But President Obama's correction of his Secretary of State's suggestion that Mexico's crisis was beginning to resemble the Colombian one underlined one thing: the acute concern in America at events in its vitally important southern neighbour.

The rift – if rift it truly is – was exposed when Hillary Clinton used a wide-ranging foreign policy speech on Wednesday to warn that Mexico was beginning to look "more and more like Colombia 20 years ago," when the drug lords "controlled parts of the country."

Ever-sensitive to criticism from Washington, the Mexican government took issue with Ms Clinton's assertion. The situations of Mexico today and Colombia in the 1980s were very different, insisted Alejandro Poire, national security adviser to President Felipe Calderon. Mexico was acting forcefully to avoid the fate of Colombia.

Within 24 hours, he had the support of none other than Ms Clinton's boss. "You can't compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia," Mr Obama told the Los Angeles-based Spanish language newspaper La Opinion. Mexico, the US President contended, was a "large and progressive democracy with a growing economy". For the Mexican media yesterday, his words were proof that Mr Obama had "rejected" or "corrected" of his Secretary of State.

If so, it would be a rare public disagreement between the White House and Ms Clinton, who, after a shaky start, has won considerable praise for her diplomatic skills, and for working so harmoniously with the rival who bested her in 2008, after the fiercest presidential primary battle in recent US history.

Yesterday, officials predictably brushed off all talk of disagreement between them: "these are two different countries and two different circumstances, the Secretary agrees," a State Department spokesman said.

By most measures, Mexico has some way to go before it becomes another Colombia where, by the end of the 1980s, the government was at war with two left-wing guerrilla movements that at one point controlled a third of the country, and the most infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, was elected to parliament.

In the end, however, the central government, working closely with the US, prevailed – only for the drugs trade to move north to Mexico, where an estimated 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Calderon sent in the country's army against the cartels in late 2006.

Speaking at the Council for Foreign Relations, Ms Clinton argued the Mexican cartels were "showing more and more indices of insurgencies," and to an extent, the facts bear her out. In Ciudad Juarez, directly across the Rio Grande from the Texan city of El Paso, more than 2,000 people were murdered in the first eight months of 2010, making it one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. In June, the top candidate for governor in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas was shot dead.

Even so, the violence has not reached the levels of Colombia, where car bombs were daily events, and public officials and businessmen died in their thousands. The Mexican government claims that the violence mostly reflects ever more savage turf wars between drug gangs – a sign, it says, that the offensive against the cartels is having an effect.

It is also netting some big fish, the latest of them Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka "Barbie", wanted in the US for importing four tonnes of cocaine, whose capture is being touted as a major success for President Calderon as he tries to convince a wavering public that the war on crime is worth the violence it is causing.

Lucky break: Mexican police caught their top target by accident

Edgar Valdez Villarreal

The Mexican police officers who arrested the infamous drug suspect, alias "La Barbie", did not initially know who they had caught. The Mexican government has depicted the capture of the US-born Valdez as the result of a one-year investigation and a carefully planned raid involving agents trained abroad.

Police papers indicated that while special police teams were in the area where Valdez was caught on 30 August, the officers who actually detained him were simply following a suspicious vehicle. The report federal police sent to prosecutors says a patrol was driving on a road west of Mexico City when a convoy of three vehicles passed at high speed. The unidentified officers followed the convoy for more than two miles before the vehicles stopped and officers ordered the occupants to get out.

The first person to descend from the vehicles was "a light-complexioned man who we later learned was Edgar Valdez Villarreal", according to the report, which also says the arresting officers were co-ordinating patrol efforts with a special operations unit.

Police said earlier that they had traced Valdez to a ranch in the wooded outskirts of Mexico City by tracing his assets and from information obtained following the arrest of some of his associates. A police spokesman said the two versions of Valdez's arrest were not contradictory.

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