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.

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

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.

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

Calling Thursday’s meeting “an opportunity to catch up on a broad range of issues in the bilateral relationship,” a senior administration official said Obama would review with Calderón recent US efforts to “cut off the illegal flows of weapons” southward from the US and a “continuing trend line of reduced demand” for illegal drugs in the US, and in particular for cocaine.

That said, Obama will have his own bone of contention to take up with Calderón, when he raises once again (as have a succession of US presidents) the US demand that its special agents operating in Mexico be allowed to arm themselves.

Reversing Mexico’s veto on foreign agents carrying weapons is a “top priority of this White House,” according to the senior official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss a meeting that had not yet taken place. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told members of Congress Wednesday that Obama would address the issue, which resurfaced after ICE agent Jaime Zapata was gunned down outside San Luis Potosi last month.

The Zapata killing is not the only event to roil US-Mexico relations of late. A series of cables from the US Embassy in Mexico City released by WikiLeaks in December revealed the concerns of US officials there that Mexico’s antinarcotics effort is plagued by poor coordination and rivalry among the country’s various security forces.

Last month a still-miffed Calderón offered an undiplomatic interview to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, in which he called the US ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, “ignorant,” and added that it is actually US law-enforcement agencies that lack coordination in their counternarcotics efforts.

Calderón, who cannot seek reelection when his term expires in 2012, lauded his personal relationship with Obama but described bilateral institutional cooperation as “notoriously insufficient” despite years of cross-border efforts on issues stretching well beyond security concerns to economic development and the environment.

William and Mary’s Grayson says the US has registered some progress in its cooperation with some Mexican security forces, in particular the Navy. But he says Calderón, whose signature act was to bring the Mexican military into the drug war, is kidding himself if he believes the country’s various security forces cooperate well and trust one another.

“It’s often like herding cats to try to get any cooperation from all the agencies within the Mexican government that work on this,” he says.

Ex-US envoy: Mexico wasn't ready

In a video conversation on the Council on Foreign Relations website, former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones cites a widespread opinion in Mexico now that Calderón declared war on the cartels before Mexico (and in particular its law enforcement agencies) was ready for it. The general conclusion now, he adds, is that bringing in the Mexican military to the fight was a mistake.

That said, he adds that the big question now for the US is what happens in 2012, when Calderón leaves office.

Grayson notes that all the declared candidates so far say they are committed to fighting the cartels, but that they want to reduce the role of the military. As for prospects for US-Mexico cooperation in Mexico’s pre- and post-electoral period, he adds, “My guess is this will have been a high-water mark [of cooperation] when compared to a year or two from now.”

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