By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009
MEXICO CITY, April 16 -- President Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, outlined a common approach Thursday to combating drug violence, climate change and trade disputes but appeared to part ways over the urgency of reinstating a U.S. ban on assault weapons.
On his first presidential visit to Mexico, Obama praised Calderón for taking on the drug cartels, whose potent arsenals and economic power are threatening the integrity of the Mexican state. Obama announced that he will push the U.S. Senate to ratify an inter-American arms-trafficking treaty.
But Obama indicated that while he favors reinstating the U.S. ban on assault weapons, which Congress allowed to expire five years ago, the move would face too much political opposition to happen soon. He said better enforcing existing laws to prevent arms smuggling would have a more immediate effect on keeping U.S. weapons from Mexican cartels.
"I continue to believe that we can respect and honor the Second Amendment rights in our Constitution, the rights of sportsmen and hunters and homeowners who want to keep their families safe to lawfully bear arms, while dealing with assault weapons that, as we know, here in Mexico, are helping to fuel extraordinary violence," he said in a news conference with Calderón at Los Pinos, the presidential compound. "Now, having said that, I think none of us are under the illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy."
Calderón said drug violence has soared since the assault weapons ban expired. He said he favors a solution "respecting the constitutional rights of the Americans [that] at the same time will prevent, or rather avoid, that organized crime becomes better organized in our country."
"But crime is not only acting in Mexico," he said. "It is also acting in the United States. Organized crime is acting in both countries."
Obama's visit, the first by a U.S. president to the capital since a Bill Clinton stop in 1997, represents a show of support for Calderón, who two years ago became the first Mexican president to fully deploy the army against drug cartels that supply a lucrative U.S. market.
Since then, more than 10,000 people have died in drug-related violence. The Bush administration won approval of a three-year, $1.4 billion counternarcotics package for Mexico and some Central American countries last June, but the military hardware has been slow in arriving. Obama pledged to expedite its delivery.
The two men expressed confidence they would resolve a trade dispute originating in a vote last month by the U.S. Congress to cancel a pilot program allowing Mexican truckers on U.S. highways, as permitted by the North American Free Trade Agreement. They emphasized the need for comprehensive immigration reform, although Obama did not say when he intended to push such legislation in Congress.
And they announced a new partnership to promote clean energy and reduce greenhouse gases in both countries by sharing academic research and promoting alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power along the border, among other measures.
But the drug violence dominated their public appearance on a day when the Mexican military engaged in a firefight with suspected drug traffickers in the southern state of Guerrero. The battle left 15 smugglers and one soldier dead, and the military said it confiscated assault rifles and grenades in the aftermath.
Obama said more than 90 percent of weapons seized by Mexican authorities have come from the United States. In the days leading up to the president's visit here, senior Obama administration officials said the government was focused on enforcing existing U.S. laws to stop arms smuggling, although Mexican officials had called for more help.
Obama's announcement on the treaty -- formally known as the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials -- marks an additional step.
The Clinton administration signed the treaty, better known by its Spanish acronym CIFTA, after the Organization of American States adopted it in 1997.
A senior Obama administration official said that "stemming the number of illegal firearms which flow into Latin America and the Caribbean is a high priority for the region and addresses a key hemispheric concern relating to people's personal security and well-being."
In all, 33 countries in the hemisphere have signed the treaty. The United States is one of four nations that have yet to ratify the convention, although Obama administration officials say the U.S. government has sought to abide by its spirit for years. The treaty was sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1998, but no action has been taken since then.
The treaty requires countries to take steps to reduce the illegal manufacture and trade in guns, ammunition and explosives. It also calls for countries to adopt strict licensing requirements, mark firearms when they are made and imported to make them easier to trace, and establish a process for sharing information between national law enforcement agencies investigating smuggling.
Denis McDonough, director for strategic communications at the National Security Council, said the convention is on a list of treaties that the administration has submitted to Congress that it considers priorities. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement, "I support the convention and plan to work for its approval by the Senate."
Johanna Mendelson Forman, senior associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "This goes beyond symbolism."
"It sends not only a positive message to Mexico but also to the region that the United States wants to be a reliable partner in improving security," she said.
Correspondent William Booth in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, contributed to this report.