WASHINGTON– The United States could increase its military support to help Mexico fight drug cartels that pose an increasingly alarming security risk, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday. “I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past,” Gates said during an NBC “Meet the Press” interview. “Some of the old biases against cooperation between our militaries and so on, I think, are being satisfied.”

Drug-related violence has soared in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the federal army to confront the well-armed and -financed cartels. So far in 2009, an estimated 1,000 people have been killed.

“The cartels are retaliating,” Gates said yesterday. “It clearly is a serious problem.”

The United States could support the effort through training, reconnaissance and surveillance support, intelligence cooperation and other assistance, Gates said.

The secretary praised Calderon’s courage in standing up to the cartels and police corruption in a way that previous presidents wouldn’t. “One of the reasons it’s gotten as bad as it has is because his predecessors basically refused to do that,” he said.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared Gates’ growing concern about Mexico last week during a Pentagon news conference.

“Mexico is certainly more of a concern to me,” Mullen said. He announced plans to visit Mexico on the last leg of this week’s trip to Latin America.

Mullen noted the spike in drug-related violence in Mexico that has increased dramatically in the last year. “We’re looking for ways to assist them in terms of addressing this kind of threat,” he said.

The chairman pointed during a Feb. 5 address at Princeton University to successes the United States has helped Colombia to achieve over drug cartels and narcoterrorists that had controlled much of the country. The U.S. military provided primarily training assistance, but other interagency efforts also supported efforts taken by the Colombian government and military.

“I think the Colombian example is a great example of a very broad program that wasn’t just military to support a friend at a time when, effectively, they were very close to a failed state,” Mullen said.

Mullen said the same kind of support could help Mexico. “We’ve offered that,” he said. “It takes engagement — not high-end military activity.”

The days of looking east and west more than north and south to assess security threats are long over, he told the Princeton audience.

“We do need to pay a lot of attention to our neighbor and the security issues and the economic issues that are associated with not just Mexico, but with Latin America,” he said.

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