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Mexican leader visits White House amid tensions

By Mary Beth Sheridan and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:42 PM

President Felipe Calderon is scheduled to visit the White House on Thursday at a time of heightened cross-border tensions, with the Mexican leader angrily accusing U.S. diplomats of causing harm with their leaked criticisms of Mexican anti-drug efforts.

The visit, which was abruptly announced a week ago, has been billed by U.S. and Mexican officials as a routine encounter that had been in the works for weeks. But recent problems, including the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and the slaying of a U.S. Immigration and Customs agent in northern Mexico, have contributed to an atmosphere of urgency.

Some U.S. lawmakers have called for pushing Mexico to allow U.S. agents stationed in that country to carry guns, a subject that is expected to come up at the meeting, according to administration officials.

Officials on both sides say the two countries are working together more closely than ever to combat Mexico's fearsome drug gangs. But, while the Obama administration has hailed Calderon's decision to deploy the military against traffickers, the Mexican leader is facing rising pressure at home because more than 35,000 people have died in violence related to the crackdown.

In an interview with El Universal newspaper last week, Calderon lashed out at the United States for failing to reduce what he called its insatiable demand for drugs and accused it of not doing much to reduce the flow of powerful weapons to the south. He also said the U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks had caused "irritation."

"The rhetoric has been heated," said Andres Rozental, a former senior Mexican diplomat. "The question Calderon is asking is, where is the shared responsibility on the U.S. side?"

Mexican officials were further irritated by a recent speech by Joseph Westphal, the U.S. undersecretary of the Army, comparing the Mexican traffickers to an "insurgency" that might have to be fought by American soldiers. Westphal quickly retracted the comments, but some Mexican lawmakers voiced alarm about a possible U.S. military operation on their territory.

U.S. officials say they have seized an increasing number of guns headed for Mexico and are speeding up delivery of anti-drug assistance. While about $1.6 billion in aid has been approved under the Merida Initiative, only about $400 million has been spent in more than three years, according to a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters Wednesday. The official, who spoke under ground rules of not being identified, said the administration would deliver $500 million worth of aid this year.

Calderon insists his country's drug violence comes from guns mostly smuggled from the United States. The House voted recently to prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using federal money to require licensed firearm dealers on the border to report multiple sales of assault weapons, potentially derailing an administration effort to tighten restrictions.

One of the weapons used to kill a U.S. federal agent in Mexico last month was bought by a Texas man who had been under ATF surveillance as part of a suspected gun-trafficking ring working with the Zetas crime syndicate in Mexico, according to federal officials.

In the wake of the killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a congressional panel this week that the Obama administration would request a "change in policy" from the Mexicans that would allow U.S. law enforcement agents based in the country to carry guns.

One U.S. congressional aide predicted that the request would not get far with Calderon.

"This isn't a man upon whom demands will fall easily right now," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Booth reported from Mexico City.

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