Evan Vucci/AP/File
In this April 30 file photo, President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington.

Why Obama won't talk so much about drug war on Mexico trip

Presidents Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto have reasons to change the US-Mexico narrative in meetings Thursday, but 'both countries are still very interested' in the drug war.

President Obama travels to Mexico Thursday with a bilateral agenda that no longer screams “drug war” as its No. 1 item.

But if narcotrafficking and security issues seem to have given way to trade, Western Hemisphere energy development, and regional prosperity on the list of items Mr. Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, will discuss Thursday, that doesn’t mean the drug war is a thing of the past, experts say.

It just means the two countries agree it’s time to talk about drugs and drug trade-related violence less.

Instead, experts add, the lower profile the two leaders give to drug trafficking and Mexico’s related violence reflects Mr. Peña Nieto’s effort to downplay his nation’s battle with drug cartels in favor of his reform agenda – and Obama’s own desires to change the narrative of the bilateral relationship.

“Peña Nieto has been putting the emphasis on economic issues and his reforms, and not so much on narcotrafficking, levels of violence, and the security agenda,” says Jorge Chabat, an expert in US-Mexico security issues at CIDE, a social sciences research and teaching institution in Mexico City.

“The US is still very interested in Mexican stability, but basically Obama has decided that not talking about the violence and talking more about economic progress will help legitimize Peña Nieto, and will help Mexican stability,” Mr. Chabat says. “Both countries are still very interested in what continues to be a very big problem,” he adds, “they’ve just agreed to talk about it less.”

In discussing Obama’s trip, White House officials concur that the president sees his three days of travel to Mexico and Costa Rica as an opportunity to shift the focus of the US-Mexico – and indeed the US-Americas – relationships beyond security and drug-trade issues.

“We very much want to broaden the focus of the relationship beyond security to encompass the economic potential,” says Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Noting Mexico’s “tremendous economic growth in recent years,” he says both presidents want to put their emphasis on enhancing that growth “to create jobs and economic opportunity on both sides of the border.”

One reason Obama is making this trip now, Mr. Rhodes says, is that the president saw the moment – Obama beginning a second term, Peña Nieto having just taken office in December – as an opportunity to recast and deepen US relations with Mexico and other southern neighbors.

Peña Nieto replaced President Felipe Calderon, who launched a ferocious fight with Mexico’s powerful drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006. Mr. Calderon’s war challenged the cartels and netted some top traffickers – but at the cost of tremendous violence that resulted in more than 70,000 deaths.

Peña Nieto came into office pledging to reduce the violence, and to put more emphasis on reforms to improve Mexico’s judicial system, reduce legendary police corruption, and streamline the anti-drug trafficking fight through better coordination among the country’s various security forces.

Some of the announced changes have caused ripples of concern north of the border – Peña Nieto has decided that all cooperation with US law enforcement agencies should be channeled through Mexico’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for all internal security issues.  

Some Drug Enforcement Agency officials have said privately they worry that order could disrupt their work with their Mexican counterparts. But Obama says that, while he wants to hear from Peña Nieto what he intends from such changes, his initial understanding is that the Mexican leader is primarily aiming for better coordinated and more efficient domestic security efforts.

“Some of the issues that he’s talking about really had to do with refinements and improvements in terms of how Mexican authorities work with each other, how they coordinate more effectively, and it has less to do with how they’re dealing with us,” Obama said at a press conference Tuesday.

The new Mexican leader’s “streamlining” of law enforcement efforts has a lot to do with domestic considerations and very little to do with cooperation with the US, CIDE’s Chabat says. Already under President Calderon US-Mexico counternarcotics cooperation had shifted from the provision of antitrafficking vehicles and related supplies to “institution-building,” he says.

What is different, Chabat adds, is that for political reasons Peña Nieto will be less public than his two predecessors about US-Mexico security cooperation.

“Calderon and [Vicente] Fox,” the last two presidents who hailed from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), “were very open about cooperation with US security agencies,” he says. But Peña Nieto faces different political pressures, he says.

Peña Nieto “will continue cooperation with the US in a very important way,” Chabat says. But he notes that the new president hails from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 70 years (until 2000) with a veneer of proud independence from American influence. As a result, he says, Peña Nieto “will think it’s important to maintain some rhetorical distance from the US to protect himself from the ultra-nationalists.”

Mexican authorities have started to trumpet what they say is a drop-off in violence and drug-war deaths since Peña Nieto took office. But some Mexican human rights groups and outside organizations like the Washington Office on Latin America say that the reduction in violence is exaggerated and limited to a few states, and that rights abuses continue at high levels.

Chabat says no one expects Mexico’s high levels of violence to fall off rapidly, or for the new government to abandon the war on drugs. And in that context of continuity, he says it’s understandable that Obama and Peña Nieto would look to change the narrative of US-Mexico relations to something more positive.

Citing such “positives” as Mexico’s recent impressive economic growth and a decade of poverty reduction across much of Latin America, some experts say Obama is broadening the spectrum of US interests in its southern neighbors at the right time.

Expanding the US agenda “offers the administration an opportunity to put together different elements that could make this relationship new, contemporary, and make people excited about the US and the region in a way that hasn’t been done in the past,” says Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Referring to Mexico as “the current darling of international economists,” Chabat says it makes sense for Obama to focus on the positive, even if the drug war is not about to go away.

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