Obama Prepares For Mexico Talks On Drug Trade
One-Day Trip Meant to Show Solidarity

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.

On the specifics of fighting the cartels, Mexico's law enforcement officials have complained that the high-caliber weapons used by drug gangs are smuggled into Mexico from the United States. Holder, during his visit to Mexico, said the Obama administration would not push for an assault-weapons ban in Congress.

But Holder and Napolitano, in a meeting with their counterparts, announced that they would begin to work to tighten border security, specifically on traffic heading from the United States into Mexico. Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said at the meeting that one in 10 vehicles entering Mexico are searched, though that figure appears to be inflated, based on observations of traffic at major ports of entry in California and Texas.

Dan Restrepo, senior director of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, said Obama "believes we can make a great deal of headway enforcing the laws that are on the books today and make a real positive difference in terms of the flow, the illegal flow, of weapons to Mexico."

"It's forcing and reinforcing the support for the Mexican government's efforts in Mexico and doing our part on our side of the border," he said.

The Merida Problem

A source of tension between the governments is the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion, three-year U.S. aid package for Mexico and Central America passed in June. So far, only $7 million has been spent on projects and equipment. The big-ticket items, including fast-response helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft and scanners to search for drugs and weapons at the border, have been promised but not delivered.

"Merida has irritated a lot of people in the Mexican government," Rozental said. "Because so far, it has not really amounted to a hill of beans in terms of actual stuff."

U.S. counternarcotics officials in Mexico say relations with their Mexican counterparts have never been better. "Day and night," one U.S. law enforcement official said, "we talk. We coordinate. We share. These are relationships we didn't even have just a few years ago."

The two governments do not yet appear to share a common definition of what constitutes victory.

Speaking at a border-crossing facility near the Rio Grande after meetings in Mexico, Napolitano said the two governments agreed to "operate almost like a vice from the north and from Mexico to take out the large cartels which have plagued our area for far, far too long."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Medina Mora, the attorney general, said, "The objective is not to stop drug trafficking, which is something beyond our means, if the demand is inelastic" in the United States. Rather than defeating the cartels, Medina said, the objective is to weaken their power, and transform them from "a national security problem to a police problem."

Trade Tensions

Meanwhile, the Mexican peso has fallen 25 percent against the dollar since last fall, and many Mexicans blame U.S. greed for the economic crisis that is pummeling Mexico particularly hard. The nation's largest trading partner is the United States.

Last month, the U.S. Congress canceled a pilot program that allowed some Mexican truckers to operate in the United States. The free movement of trucks north and south of the border is a component of NAFTA, and banning Mexican trucks from U.S. highways violates the trade agreement.

Mexico responded by slapping $2.4 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. products. In a letter to Obama, 150 U.S. corporations, including General Electric and Wal-Mart, warned: "The retaliation is already impacting the ability of a broad range of U.S. goods to compete in the Mexican market, from potatoes and sunscreen to paper and dishwashers."

"What Congress did by ending the program really has put him on the defensive," said Grant D. Aldonas, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as undersecretary of commerce for international trade in the Bush administration.

Wilson reported from Washington.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company