Obama Prepares For Mexico Talks On Drug Trade

By William Booth and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- President Obama will travel to Mexico on Thursday in a show of solidarity with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, who has asked the new U.S. administration to do more against a thriving drug trade that threatens the integrity of his government and country.

In advance of the one-day visit, Obama administration officials have said the president will pledge to do more to stop the flow of U.S.-made firearms to the drug cartels fighting for control of smuggling routes along the border. Officials say he also wants to broaden the U.S. relationship with Mexico, long dominated by drugs and immigration, to include economic and environmental interests.

But Mexican analysts say Calderón, who is frustrated by delays in delivery of promised U.S. counternarcotics aid, will want more. Calderón, who two years ago became the first Mexican president to so fully deploy the army against the cartels, will seek from Obama an emphatic expression of confidence that the Mexican government will succeed against the cartels after a Defense Department report last year said Mexico was on its way to becoming a "failed state."

"Drugs will be at the top of the agenda. It will dominate the agenda, because the drug fight is all that Calderón talks about, all that he thinks about," said Jorge Castañeda, foreign secretary under Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox. "He wants to hear [Obama] say that Mexico was never a failed state, is not a failed state today and even in their deepest, darkest fears will never, ever be a failed state."

The violence in Mexico captured the early attention of the Obama administration, which in March sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Mexico to meet with Calderón and his drug-war cabinet.

More than 10,100 people have died in the conflict since Calderón unleashed military battalions and federal agents against the traffickers, and the extreme violence dominates the news about Mexico north and south of the border.

Calderón was blindsided by the report, which was issued by the U.S. Joint Forces Command and warned that Mexico was in danger of becoming "a failed state" overrun by corruption and lawlessness brought on by the drug cartels, which have grown rich and powerful supplying cocaine to the U.S. market. Obama administration officials distanced themselves from the appraisal.

This visit "is designed to send a very clear signal to our friends in Mexico City that we have a series of shared challenges as it relates to the economy, as it relates to security, insecurity, the threat of violence, and the impact of drug trafficking on both our countries," said Denis McDonough, the National Security Council's director for strategic communications.

"The president admires [Calderón's] work as it relates to confronting violence and impunity by criminal drug trafficking networks," he continued. But Obama also wants to "more deeply develop our bilateral relationship on economic matters, as well as on matters related to energy and climate change."

'Doing Our Part'

This will be the third meeting between Calderón and Obama. Calderón was the first foreign leader to meet with Obama after his election, and the two saw each other again at the Group of 20 summit in London this month.

Calderón is fluent in English, and the two men share an alma mater. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, and Calderón did graduate studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"The question now is what is President Obama going to do to back up all the nice speeches about how confronting the drug and arms trafficking is a shared responsibility between the two nations," said Andrés Rozental, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister.

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