In U.S. visit, Mexican president to discuss drug war, immigration

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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 17, 2010

MEXICO CITY -- President Felipe Calderón arrives in Washington this week for a two-day state visit that was supposed to be a celebration of U.S.-Mexican cooperation in his drug war. Instead, it is likely to showcase Mexico's frustration over Arizona's tough new immigration law, which Calderón has described as anti-Mexican.

The legislation's passage has put the hot-button issue of illegal immigration on the bilateral agenda. It requires police enforcing another law to question a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the United States illegally.

At home, Calderón -- who is usually cautious, lawyerly and scripted in his public remarks -- speaks daily about the fight against the drug cartels but rarely about immigration, although roughly 10 percent of Mexico's population lives in the United States.

He has been frank in his condemnation of the Arizona law, however, saying it "opens the door to intolerance, hate, discrimination and abuse in law enforcement" and noting that the U.S. economy was built with a lot of Mexican sweat, legal and not.

In remarks to Spain's El Pais newspaper Friday, he asserted that the law is creating tensions between the two countries.

In Mexico, the political class from right to left has closed ranks to deplore the Arizona measure, which has dominated front pages and TV news here. Elected officials from the three major parties are exhorting Calderón to challenge it in Washington, where on Wednesday he will be greeted with pomp and ceremony at the White House and feted with high-end Mexican fusion food at a state dinner, and will address a joint session of Congress.

But the atmosphere might be a little strained.

Soon after Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed the measure last month, Mexico issued a rare "travel advisory" to its citizens warning them of possible harassment in the state.

The governors of the six northern Mexican states that share a border with the United States have denounced the law and said they would boycott an upcoming conference of governors in Phoenix.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington is preparing amicus briefs to support lawsuits by civil rights groups seeking repeal of the measure. The head of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission declared the law "xenophobic." Mexican universities said they would suspend student-exchange programs involving Arizona. And cartoonists here have had a field day depicting an Arizona without Mexicans, where U.S. citizens are forced to cook their own food, cut their lawns, pick their crops and care for their children.

"So, yes, we don't like this law," Mexico's interior secretary, Fernando Gómez-Mont, said at a forum in Washington this month.

The drug issue

There are an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, most of them from Mexico. Mexican migrants, legal and otherwise, sent home more than $20 billion last year, the second leading source of legitimate foreign income in the country after oil sales. Illegal drug sales may account for as much as $25 billion.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, who worked for six months to arrange the state visit for Calderón, has sought to calm emotions, repeating at every opportunity that President Obama and his administration consider the Arizona measure "misdirected" and are exploring legal challenges.

A former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, now a professor at New York University, has described the law as "stupid but useful," meaning that it may help create momentum for federal immigration reform.

The law also appears to be feeding Mexican frustration -- usually expressed off the record -- that the United States is not doing enough in the drug war. Mexican officials are complaining more openly that authorities here are under grenade attack by drug-smuggling syndicates while pot pharmacies in Los Angeles sell bags of marijuana to so-called patients.

Authority figures in Mexico are coming under increasing assault. This weekend, a former presidential candidate mysteriously disappeared, and police think that kidnappers or drug gangs may be responsible. Diego Fernández de Cevallos, a power broker in Calderón's political party, went missing in the central state of Queretaro near his ranch, leaving behind an empty car and few clues.

Under the Merida Initiative aid package, U.S. taxpayers have contributed $1.3 billion to the fight, money that pays for Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and armored cars and trains for Mexican police officers and judges. Obama wants to continue the aid initiative and has asked for $310 million for Mexico in 2011.

Calderón, who has described his northern neighbors as "the biggest consumers of drugs in the world," said last week that the binational struggle against drug trafficking will still be at the center of discussions in Washington.

"The president has to say something about the Arizona law in his speech, but he is really speaking more to Mexicans," said Raúl Benítez Manaut, an expert in national security issues and immigration at the Autonomous University of Mexico. "He also will be careful not to upset the Republicans in Congress, whom he needs to continue the fight against the cartels."

Systemic corruption

At home, Calderón has complained that billions of dollars in drug profits empower the cartels while the United States, with its freewheeling gun market, is the source of most of the weapons smuggled into Mexico.

More than 22,700 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderón declared war against the cartels in December 2006 and sent the first of 50,000 Mexican troops into the streets.

U.S. officials might push back, however. Although they have publicly applauded Calderón's courage in attacking the cartels, the fight has revealed systemic corruption in Mexico.

The latest shock was the discovery of a pile of documents that the government seized from an associate of Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. The stash included lists of Mexican federal agents, their names and numbers, and references to intelligence shared by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


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