Pubdate: Wed, 15 Apr 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth, and Scott Wilson


One-Day Trip Meant to Show Solidarity

MEXICO CITY -- President Obama will travel to Mexico on Thursday in a 
show of solidarity with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, who 
has asked the new U.S. administration to do more against a thriving 
drug trade that threatens the integrity of his government and country.

In advance of the one-day visit, Obama administration officials have 
said the president will pledge to do more to stop the flow of 
U.S.-made firearms to the drug cartels fighting for control of 
smuggling routes along the border. Officials say he also wants to 
broaden the U.S. relationship with Mexico, long dominated by drugs 
and immigration, to include economic and environmental interests.

But Mexican analysts say Calderon, who is frustrated by delays in 
delivery of promised U.S. counternarcotics aid, will want more. 
Calderon, who two years ago became the first Mexican president to so 
fully deploy the army against the cartels, will seek from Obama an 
emphatic expression of confidence that the Mexican government will 
succeed against the cartels after a Defense Department report last 
year said Mexico was on its way to becoming a "failed state."

"Drugs will be at the top of the agenda. It will dominate the agenda, 
because the drug fight is all that Calderon talks about, all that he 
thinks about," said Jorge Casta=F1eda, foreign secretary under 
Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox. "He wants to hear [Obama] say 
that Mexico was never a failed state, is not a failed state today and 
even in their deepest, darkest fears, will never, ever be a failed state."

The violence in Mexico captured the early attention of the Obama 
administration, which in March sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 
Clinton, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security 
Secretary Janet Napolitano to Mexico to meet with Calderon and his 
drug-war cabinet.

More than 10,100 people have died in the conflict since Calderon 
unleashed military battalions and federal agents against the 
traffickers, and the extreme violence dominates the news about Mexico 
north and south of the border.

Calderon was blindsided by the report, which was issued by the U.S. 
Joint Forces Command and warned that Mexico was in danger of becoming 
"a failed state" overrun by corruption and lawlessness brought on by 
the drug cartels, which have grown rich and powerful supplying 
cocaine to the U.S. market. Obama administration officials distanced 
themselves from the appraisal.

This visit "is designed to send a very clear signal to our friends in 
Mexico City that we have a series of shared challenges as it relates 
to the economy, as it relates to security, insecurity, the threat of 
violence, and the impact of drug trafficking on both our countries," 
said Denis McDonough, the National Security Council's director for 
strategic communications.

"The president admires [Calderon's] work as it relates to confronting 
violence and impunity by criminal drug trafficking networks," he 
continued. But Obama also wants to "more deeply develop our bilateral 
relationship on economic matters, as well as on matters related to 
energy and climate change."

'Doing Our Part'

This will be the third meeting between Calderon and Obama. Calderon 
was the first foreign leader to meet with Obama after his election, 
and the two saw each other again at the Group of 20 summit in London 
this month.

Calderon is fluent in English, and the two men share an alma mater. 
Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, and Calderon did graduate 
studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"The question now is what is President Obama going to do to back up 
all the nice speeches about how confronting the drug and arms 
trafficking is a shared responsibility between the two nations," said 
Andres Rozental, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister.

On the specifics of fighting the cartels, Mexico's law enforcement 
officials have complained that the high-caliber weapons used by drug 
gangs are smuggled into Mexico from the United States. Holder, during 
his visit to Mexico, said the Obama administration would not push for 
an assault-weapons ban in Congress.

But Holder and Napolitano, in a meeting with their counterparts, 
announced that they would begin to work to tighten border security, 
specifically on traffic heading from the United States into Mexico. 
Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said at the meeting that 
one in 10 vehicles entering Mexico are searched, though that figure 
appears to be inflated, based on observations of traffic at major 
ports of entry in California and Texas.

Dan Restrepo, senior director of western hemisphere affairs at the 
National Security Council, said Obama "believes we can make a great 
deal of headway enforcing the laws that are on the books today and 
make a real positive difference in terms of the flow, the illegal 
flow, of weapons to Mexico."

"It's forcing and reinforcing the support for the Mexican 
government's efforts in Mexico and doing our part on our side of the 
border," he said.

The Merida Problem

A source of tension between the governments is the Merida Initiative, 
a $1.4 billion, three-year U.S. aid package for Mexico and Central 
America passed in June 2008. So far, only $7 million has been spent 
on projects and equipment. The big-ticket items, including 
fast-response helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft and scanners to 
search for drugs and weapons at the border, have been promised but 
not delivered.

"Merida has irritated a lot of people in the Mexican government," 
Rozental said. "Because so far, it has not really amounted to a hill 
of beans in terms of actual stuff."

U.S. counternarcotics officials in Mexico say relations with their 
Mexican counterparts have never been better. "Day and night," one 
U.S. law enforcement official said. "We talk. We coordinate. We 
share. These are relationships we didn't even have just a few years ago."

The two governments do not yet appear to share a common definition of 
what constitutes victory.

Speaking at a border-crossing facility near the Rio Grande after 
meetings in Mexico, Napolitano said the two governments agreed to 
"operate almost like a vice from the north and from Mexico to take 
out the large cartels which have plagued our area for far, far too long."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Medina Mora, the attorney 
general, said, "The objective is not to stop drug trafficking, which 
is something beyond our means, if the demand is inelastic" in the 
United States. Rather than defeating the cartels, Medina said, the 
objective is to weaken their power, and transform them from "a 
national security problem to a police problem."

Trade Tensions

Meanwhile, the Mexican peso has fallen 25 percent against the dollar 
since last fall, while many Mexicans blame U.S. greed for the 
economic crisis that is pummeling Mexico particularly hard. The 
nation's largest trading partner is the United States.

Last month, the U.S. Congress canceled a pilot program that allowed 
some Mexican truckers to operate in the United States. The free 
movement of trucks north and south of the border is a component of 
NAFTA, and banning Mexican trucks from U.S. highways violates the 
trade agreement.

Mexico responded by slapping $2.4 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. 
products. In a letter to Obama, 150 U.S. corporations, including 
General Electric and Wal-Mart, warned: "The retaliation is already 
impacting the ability of a broad range of U.S. goods to compete in 
the Mexican market, from potatoes and sunscreen to paper and dishwashers."

"What Congress did by ending the program really has put him on the 
defensive," said Grant D. Aldonas, a senior adviser at the Center for 
Strategic and International Studies who served as undersecretary of 
commerce for international trade in the Bush administration.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart