US-Mexico ties: Tensions simmer beneath Calderón's visit to White House

Ahead of today's visit, Mexican President Felipe Calderón said the US has not done its part to reduce arms trafficking and drug consumption, and lambasted US diplomats for leaked cables that called his security forces corrupt and uncoordinated.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the Army Day in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 19.

Smiles are likely to be all around when Mexican President Felipe Calderón meets with President Obama today at the White House. But simmering beneath the surface, the highest-profile US killing in Mexico in 25 years along with damaging cables released by WikiLeaks have pushed bilateral relations to one of their most tense points in Mr. Obama's presidency.

In public statements, diplomats on both sides of the border say bilateral coordination has never been tighter and that the leaders’ meeting had been in the works long before US Immigration and Customs (ICE) Agent Jaime Zapata was murdered by gunmen in Mexico on Feb. 15.

But President Calderón painted a different picture last week in an unusually candid interview with Mexico's El Universal daily newspaper. He said the United States has not done its part to reduce arms trafficking and drug consumption, and lambasted US diplomats in Mexico for leaked cables that called his security forces corrupt and uncoordinated.

American forces are the uncoordinated ones, he added, while calling US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual “ignorant” in connection to the cables.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

So how will Calderón handle his list of grievances during this afternoon's visit?

“The ball is in Calderón’s court,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where Calderón is also scheduled to speak today. “Is he going to come out swinging, saying the US isn’t doing enough, or is he going to come in to mend fences to some of the tensions? ... Part of me thinks he wants to ratchet up the volume in the relationship.”

What Calderón wants

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said Calderón will likely discuss drug consumption and arms smuggling from the US during his fifth meeting with Obama in two years. Also on the agenda will be keeping money flowing for the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, which has come in fits and starts.

“That there are insufficiencies is precisely what we are trying to address, as well as to strengthen a relationship as important as the relationship between Mexico and the United States,” Mexico’s Undersecretary for North America Julian Ventura told reporters Tuesday.

Mr. Ventura said both governments will likely renew promises Thursday to speed up funding for the Merida Initiative. He denied local media reports that Calderón no longer spoke with US Ambassador Pascual, saying there is a “direct and intense” relationship.

Calderón will also meet with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio, a powerful force in the opposition-led Congress, where intense budget debates can decide on both Merida funding and gun control measures.

Mexico’s Senate called on Calderón Tuesday to strongly reject tough immigration bills advancing in places like Arizona and Texas during his meeting with Obama.

What Obama might give

In the run-up to the Oval Office summit the Obama administration appeared to extend an olive branch on several thorny issues with Mexico. The US Embassy in Mexico City publicized prominently on its website Wednesday the administration’s request of more than $10 billion from Congress to reduce drug consumption, which Calderón has said the United States has not done enough on.

US Attorney General Eric Holder pressed a congressional appropriations subcommittee Tuesday to fund a proposal from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to track multiple purchases of some semiautomatic rifles in border states. Congress had initially voted against funding earlier this year. Justice Department reports that the gun that killed Zapata in Mexico was traced back to Texas has increased scrutiny of lax gun laws in border states.

But Mr. Holder also said he is considering requesting permission for US agents to carry arms within Mexico after Zapata’s murder highlighted heightened risks. Calderón is not expected to back such a change in policy. A senior Obama administration official said both presidents will discuss improving security for US agents in Mexico during Thursday’s meeting, The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday.

The Feb. 15 shooting of Zapata in the north-central state of San Luis Potosí also wounded Agent Victor Avila, who is recovering. Gunmen attacked the agents’ vehicle on a busy but dangerous highway. About a dozen suspects from the ruthless Zetas gang were quickly arrested by Mexico's armed forces. The suspects claim they targeted Zapata’s dark SUV by accident, thinking it was the vehicle of a rival gang.

But some US lawmakers and media reports have questioned that account. Former ICE Deputy Director Alonzo Pena, who has knowledge of the investigation, told the Monitor that the motive for the killing still needs much more investigation and that US investigators were also interested in suspects who were not at the scene of the shooting.

In a separate raid on Sunday, Mexico captured an alleged regional leader of the Zetas who oversaw the cell that attacked the US agents, but it was not immediately clear whether he was directly involved in the killing.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Schedule of President Felipe Calderón's visit to the White House

12:20 p.m. – President Obama holds a one on one meeting with President Felipe Calderón

1:00 p.m. – Obama and President Calderón hold a joint news conference

1:35 p.m. – Obama meets with Calderón for a working lunch

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