Mexico's president talks economics with Obama, but lawlessness still presses

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with President Obama at the White House Tuesday in a visit that has been overshadowed by the issues of violence and lack of the rule of law across much of America’s southern neighbor.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The president is looking to his southern neighbor for help implementing the changing policies on immigration and Cuba.

When Mexico’s youthful and reform-minded President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in late 2012, anticipation of a newly dynamic Mexico joining other surging Latin lions like Brazil led to talk of “Mexico’s moment.”

Mr. Peña Nieto’s meeting with President Obama at the White House Tuesday was supposed to focus on new economic opportunities in an energized bilateral relationship. Instead, the visit has been overshadowed by the familiar – and decidedly more downbeat – issues of violence, police-linked corruption, and lack of the rule of law across much of America’s southern neighbor.

Still, the two presidents were expected to discuss Mexican economic reforms – including a historic opening up of the country’s energy sector to foreign investment – while also addressing US immigration and border security issues. Much of the day was to be taken up by the second US-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue.

As he greeted Peña Nieto at the White House, Mr. Obama underscored “our commitment ... to be a friend and supporter of Mexico” as it battles the drug cartels “responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico.” He praised the Mexican leader for being “very helpful” in getting the “right” message out across the region about the dangers and illegality of clandestine migration across the border into the United States.

In return, Peña Nieto lauded both Obama’s recent executive action on immigration and his opening to Cuba as “audacious” decisions that will benefit the US and the region.

But as has been true for many years, it’s the security and rule-of-law issues in Mexico that threaten to hold back what one senior Obama administration official summed up as an “extraordinary relationship.”

The disappearance and presumed murder of 43 student teachers in the state of Guerrero in September – apparently the horrific product of police-drug gang collusion – shocked even a violence-inured Mexico. But it also reminded the world of the failed rule of law and high levels of insecurity that continue to hold back not just Mexico, but other US neighbors in Central and South America.

Mexico recorded nearly 20,000 killings related to organized crime over the past two years. Farther south, Venezuela registered a record 25,000 murders in 2014 – a homicide rate surpassed globally only by Central America’s Honduras.

The high rates of violence and public insecurity across parts of Latin America don’t just hinder stability and prosperity at home, but they often end up having an impact on the US as well. When the number of Central American children seeking to cross into the US spiked last summer, a key factor was their families’ desire to get them out of an environment of entrenched gang violence. Those child migrants included large numbers from Honduras.

Mexico’s Peña Nieto has been slow to address the security challenges – in part because he rode into office on a wave of citizen fatigue with the costly war on the drug cartels and corruption led by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.

That war registered some successes, particularly along the northern border, where cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are beginning to reap the economic benefits of a renewed sense of security. But other parts of Mexico – including Michoacán, where murky vigilante groups last year took over entire cities, and Guerrero, where the student teachers were murdered – remain mired in violence and corruption.

The unhappy plight of too many Mexicans, say some political analysts in the country, is to live either where the state is virtually absent and is replaced by crime gangs, or where the state’s presence means high levels of corruption.

The Obama administration has continued efforts begun in 2008 under President Bush to assist Mexico in fighting the drug cartels feeding the US illegal drug market. That effort, named the Merida Initiative, has placed some emphasis on police reform and a strengthening of Mexico’s judicial system.

Administration officials preparing for Peña Nieto’s visit indicated this week that this emphasis will continue.

“The core of our cooperation with Mexico has been working to improve the performance of law enforcement institutions and judicial institutions,” says one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive US-Mexico relations more freely.

But the official was careful to underscore that the emphasis on institutional reform is not just a US priority but something atop Peña Nieto’s agenda as well. “Those are areas that President Peña Nieto has signaled are important to him as well,” the official added, “so we’re going to continue to look for ways to work with them on that.”

Still, after more than $2 billion in US assistance under the Merida Initiative, some critics are calling for the program to be suspended, given the continuing poor record of Mexican law enforcement. Others say the program needs to shift further away from cartel fighting and border security and focus more on police training and judicial reform.

In a letter to Obama Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it’s time for the US to get tough and withhold part of the Merida Initiative money until efforts to address human rights abuses improve.

“Mexico is facing its worst human rights crisis in years, with security forces committing horrific abuses that are rarely punished,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at HRW, in a statement. Saying Peña Nieto “has so far failed to take this crisis seriously,” he added that Obama “has been unwilling to call them on it.”

He notes that 15 percent of Merida funding is supposed to be conditioned on Mexico meeting a set of human rights conditions that include investigation and prosecution of security forces’ rights abuses. At least that much funding should be withheld to send the Mexican government a message, Mr. Wilkinson says.

But that seems unlikely to happen. When Obama was asked about Mexico’s human rights issues in a December interview with Telemundo, the president laid the disappearance of the 43 student teachers at the feet of drug cartels, saying it reflected the “chronic problem of narco-traffickers in some cases taking over entire towns or entire regions.”

Yet Obama appeared to nix the idea of cutting back US assistance over such cases, saying, “The best thing we can do is to be a good partner and to build on the progress that been made ... in doing things the right way.”

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