A significant chunk of President Obama’s cabinet and top national security advisers – including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano – will be in Mexico Tuesday for discussions focused on Mexico’s spiraling drug-related violence.
The delegation also includes America's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His attendance underscores how dominant national security has become in bilateral relations, some experts say.
“You don’t bring out the big guns like Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen for a delegation like this unless the overriding focus is going to be security, the drug violence, and the perception of the impact these have on US national security,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York.
The high-level bilateral talks are part of the $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative, which is aimed at tamping down Mexico’s drug war with US assistance. The talks are supposed to follow a broad agenda beyond security issues. But with the recent gang-style killings of two employees at the US consulate in violence-torn Ciudad Juárez, prospects appear slim for moving the discussion much beyond border violence.
Consulate killings in Ciudad Juárez
On Monday, Secretary Clinton held a video conference with employees of the US Embassy in Mexico City and the nine US consulates around Mexico, in part to reassure employees about security measures in light of the Cuidad Juárez killings. An employee at the US consulate and her husband were shot March 13 while driving in the city with their 7-month-old in the back seat. The child survived. A Mexican linked to the consulate was also killed.
At a State Department briefing Monday, spokesman Phillip Crowley said Clinton would “reiterate that we are doing everything that we can to help not only with the investigation, but also with security improvements.” He said the Mexican government has increased protection at the Ciudad Juárez consulate.
State Department officials have tried to emphasize the broad agenda that Tuesday’s delegation will address, including the strengthening of government institutions, human rights, and steps for building “livable border cities.”
More talks ahead
Beyond Tuesday’s meeting, Michelle Obama is scheduled to make her first solo trip as first lady to Mexico in April, where she is expected to meet with Mexico’s Primera Dama Margarita Zavala and to focus on education and economic advancement, in particular for women. Mexican President Felipe Calderón is scheduled to visit Washington in May.
Some Mexico experts say the bilateral meeting should take note of increasing criticism of President Calderón’s decision to engage the military in Mexico’s battle with powerful drug cartels.
“While heightened security operations were needed, the reliance on the Mexican military has taken resources and attention away from strengthening civilian law enforcement and justice institutions and has resulted in a significant increase in human rights abuses,” said Maureen Meyer, Mexico associate with the Washington Office on Latin America, in a statement Monday.
But Mr. Sabatini says it will be hard to turn the discussion Tuesday in the direction of “broad issues” with a delegation dominated by officials focused on national security and defense, intelligence, counterterrorism, and drug policy.