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Drug war at forefront of Obama's visit to Mexico

He's likely to stress shared responsibility for rising border violence during trip that begins Thursday.

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Mr. Chabat says he is reminded of the words of the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the Reagan administration diplomat who said this about President Clinton's plan to rescue Mexican solvency after the 1994 peso crash. "She said that if your neighbor's house is burning, you help put out the fire – not for love of your neighbor, but because you don't want your house to burn down as well. Now Mexico is a burning state," Chabat says, "so Obama is telling Americans it is in their interest to help put the fire out so the sparks stop flying across the border."

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The two presidents will address a related issue: the flow of guns from the US into Mexico. Calderón wants Obama to press for reinstating the US ban on assault weapons, noting that the US-sourced weapons the drug gangs carry are more powerful than the weapons issued to Mexican law enforcement officers.

White House officials made it clear that request will be a nonstarter. But Obama believes that much more can be done on the US side of the border and at the interagency level to stop guns from going south, they say.

While most Mexicans point a wagging finger at the US over guns and the Mexican military says weapons from the US are used in 80 percent of drug-related violence, some acknowledge that the fixation on US guns is exaggerated.

"Of course more should be done to control the flow of weapons south, but on the other hand all you have to do is look at Colombia's well-armed guerrillas to realize it's utopic to think the arms trafficking could be stopped," says José Antonio Crespo, a Mexico City political analyst. "The FARC [Colombia's main guerrilla organization) don't get their weapons in El Paso, Texas, and by the same token, if the drug gangs couldn't get their guns in the US, they'd turn to China or Ukraine."

Calderón is likely to get some satisfaction from Obama's stated determination to step up delivery of antinarcotics assistance already committed to Mexico under the Bush administration's Merida initiative. The $1.4 billion program approved by Congress was supposed to deliver high-tech equipment and other resources to Mexico's army and police, but so far only a trickle has arrived.

Obama "has been very clear with his administration that he expects those investments to roll with the dispatch that the situation, both in our border communities as well as in Mexico, demands," says the White House's Mr. McDonough.

What will be missing from Obama's words here, some in Mexico say, will be any talk of decriminalizing drugs like marijuana, which analysts such as Chabat say is the only solution in the long term to the drug trafficking and violence. "But we know he's not going to address it," Chabat says, "because the American public doesn't want to hear it."