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Mexico's Calderón meets Obama to showcase close ties. Is it just a show?

Even as Mexico's Felipe Calderón meets with President Obama at the White House Thursday in a demonstration of close bilateral ties, basic disagreements over the drug war persist.

By Staff writer / March 3, 2011

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon holds a news conference at Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City, Thursday Feb. 24.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP

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Washington

Mexican President Felipe Calderón meets with President Obama at the White House Thursday amid the same frictions that have irritated the bilateral relationship throughout Mr. Calderón's five-year war on Mexico’s drug cartels.

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Despite stepped-up antinarcotics cooperation between the two countries in recent years, the US continues to find Mexico’s efforts against the drug-trafficking organizations uncoordinated and undermined by corruption. Horrendous violence has left more than 35,000 Mexicans dead since 2006.

For its part, Mexico still puts the onus for the burgeoning drug trade and its accompanying violence on the US, saying unbridled (and even legalized) drug consumption north of the border and an unchecked flow of arms southward are at the root of the problem.

For this visit, Calderón is coming armed with a poignant “Exhibit A” to back up his country’s perspective. As it turns out, one of the three firearms used in an ambush that killed an American Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in Mexico last month has been traced back to Texas.

But Calderón is unlikely to dwell on the “I told you so” portion of his message in a White House visit that is designed to showcase a bilateral relationship capable of overcoming strains, experts in US-Mexico relations say.

“I have no doubt that Calderón will emphasize these two issues of US arms flowing south and US drug consumption feeding a bloody war, but he’s also realistic enough to know that he’s not going to be able to change US policy,” says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “Basically this visit is for his own domestic consumption.”

Calderón wants to showcase his good relationship with Obama – this will be the two leaders’ fifth meeting – and demonstrate what Mexicans like to see as a relationship of partners “where each side pulls its weight,” Dr. Grayson says.

For the most part, the White House will oblige. The Obama administration plans to spend about $500 million this year on Plan Merida, the counternarcotics program begun in 2008 to help Mexico fight the drug-trafficking mafias through training of new security forces and delivery of equipment like helicopters.

The sum to be spent on the program this year is more than the last two years combined, with the White House attributing the accelerated dispersal of the funding to progress in the program and to ramped-up training of new Mexican security agents.

Demand to arm US agents

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