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US-Mexico tensions darken visit of President Felipe Calderón

Drug violence, trade, and border issues – including Arizona’s new immigration law – are among the difficult issues to be discussed when Mexican President Felipe Calderón visits Washington Wednesday.

By Staff writer / May 18, 2010

President Barack Obama greets Mexican President Felipe Calderón before a dinner at the Washington Convention Center during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April.

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US-Mexico relations are never simple or care-free. But rising drug violence concentrated in Mexico’s border communities and Arizona’s new anti-illegal-immigration law provide a particularly difficult backdrop for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's state visit to Washington Wednesday.

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President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will be all smiles when they greet President Calderón and Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala for a full day's visit, which includes a press conference, State Department lunch, and a White House state dinner.

The Obamas are having guest chef Rick Bayless from their favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago, Topolobambo, prepare the evening meal.

But the festivities won’t be able to cover over tensions in the relationship, including US concerns about corruption in the Mexican security forces and Obama’s failure to resolve a controversy over a NAFTA provision to allow Mexican trucks on US highways.

Compared to the last state visit by a Mexican president – when “Jorge” Bush received Vicente Fox in 2001 – the atmosphere today is considerably darker, many experts say.

“In 2001 there was real optimism, you had this sense of democracy blooming in Mexico and a sense in Washington that the post-cold-war adjustments were allowing the US to focus on the hemisphere, and both developments were encouraging people to think big thoughts about the relationship,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Washington.

'Difficult and vexing issues'

“But today there’s an absence of big ideas, and instead we’re focused on managing some very difficult and vexing issues,” he adds. “There’s a more somber, pragmatic tone to relations.”

One of the “big ideas” that Mr. Fox brought north with him in September 2001 was that of a North American community that would eventually include the free movement of people. Those days seem especially distant after years of border fence construction and now Arizona’s law tasking local police with questioning and detaining suspected illegal immigrants.

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