Drug war dispute to dominate US-Mexico meeting

Mexican President Felipe Calderón will press President Barack Obama to crack down on United States drug consumption and illegal arms sales when they meet on Thursday to smooth over troubles in their drugs-war alliance.

Calderon last week accused the US of damaging efforts to beat back drug cartels, just days after one of the worst attacks on US officials in Mexico left one Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent dead and another wounded.

Instead of seeking to reassure Washington, Calderón uncharacteristically blasted the US ambassador to Mexico as “ignorant”, and lashed out at ICE, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration for their role in the drugs war.

“The reality is that they don’t coordinate with each other, they’re rivals,” he told a Mexican newspaper.

The spat has raised the temperature for Calderón’s first visit to Washington since May, although the two leaders will again commit to battling the gangs thwarting trade, investment and tourism, especially in increasingly lawless border areas.

The Obama administration has shown a fair amount of attention to Mexico and acknowledges its share of responsibility for the border chaos. But Calderón’s visit comes at an inauspicious time for a White House wrapped up in the sweeping political changes across the Middle East.

Calderón said Washington must do more to curb US demand for drugs and stop illegal weapons sales to Mexico. A senior US government official said efforts had already been ramped up to stop weapons smuggling and cut demand for illegal drugs.

Since Calderón launched a war on the cartels in late 2006, more than 36 000 people have been killed, putting pressure on Mexico and the US to beef up their response.

Intelligence sharing has increased but mistrust between security forces has hampered progress. Mexico’s resources are stretched and the US has limited options, needing to tread carefully in a neighbour mindful of its sovereignty.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, said Calderón should make clear at his fifth round of talks with Obama why there hasn’t been more progress — and lay the blame squarely at Washington’s door.

“Why is he losing the fight? Because the US provides guns and money. It’s not his fault,” he said. “If Calderón’s willing to point that out publicly, it will help him symbolically. It will show Mexicans that he’s standing up to the US.”

US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Washington was “very concerned” about the violence and needs to prevent the cartels from exporting the bloodshed north and trying to take over parts of the border.

Political cost
Calderón has staked his name on winning the drugs war, but the violence has dominated his presidency, stifling efforts to liberalise the economy and encourage foreign investment. A 2010 survey of US firms showed 15% postponed investments or expansion in Mexico due to security worries.

His centre-right National Action Party, or PAN, lags the opposition in polls ahead of a presidential vote next year.

Calderón maintains that high-profile arrests and killings have weakened the big cartels, although the fallout has fuelled the death count, generating more negative headlines.

Despite backing Calderón’s drive to crush the cartels, recent spats and the killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata will not give Obama much leeway to make promises, analysts say.

“I don’t think Obama can give big bear hugs to Calderón,” said George Grayson, a political scientist and Mexico expert from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. “An American law enforcement agent has just been killed in Mexico.”

Mexican officials say the meeting will seek to improve joint cooperation over intelligence, while the US official said it would also cover trade barriers, after a trucking dispute led Mexico to put duties on some US goods in 2009.

Trade always looms large in the relationship, particularly for Mexico, which sells 80% of exports to its neighbour.

‘Demand for drugs is driven by the US’
Zapata’s death has also prompted calls from US lawmakers that US agents in Mexico should be allowed to carry guns.

“I see this assault as a direct assault on the United States and I think the United States needs to respond accordingly,” Michael McCaul, a Republican Representative from Texas, told Fox News. “Our law enforcement should be armed.”

Jose Luis Pineyro, an expert on the drugs war from Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University, said officials would probably pressure Calderón behind the scenes to let US agents carry weapons in Mexico and pursue suspects across the border.

“But of course this won’t work unless there’s a reciprocal agreement,” Pineyro said. “Demand for drugs is driven by the United States, the United States sells arms across the border, and the people die in Mexico.”

With Obama’s administration sidetracked by unrest in the Middle East and fighting to avoid cuts in federal spending demanded by Republican opposition, Calderón faces an uphill battle to exact fresh pledges from his northern neighbour.

“It’s a terrible time for Mexico to try to make headway with the US,” said Grayson. “The White House is mesmerised by what’s happening in Libya, Bahrain and Egypt at the moment.” — Reuters

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Matt Spetalnick
Matt Spetalnick works from Washington. Reuters Washington Correspondent Foreign Policy/National Security/White House Matt Spetalnick has over 2753 followers on Twitter.

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