Awaiting Obama, Mexico hopes for change


With a veritable war swirling through the nation and seeping from its borders, Mexico has arisen as a foreign policy emergency for President Obama, and a test of his ability to bring fundamental change to one of Washington’s most important relationships.

Like much of the rest of Latin America, the Mexico that receives a visit from Obama today yearns for the kind of new partnership that the president espouses. U.S.-Latin American relations are at their lowest point in years and Obama’s pledge to “re-order” the agenda is welcome.

But beyond spoken commitments, Mexico is looking for concrete assistance in several areas. Powerful drug-trafficking organizations have unleashed a wave of violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in just over two years and could threaten the very ability of President Felipe Calderon to govern. Calderon has repeatedly called on Washington to do more to stop the flow of weapons and drug money from the U.S. and to curb the demand for the tons of cocaine and marijuana that Mexican traffickers send northward.


“It is essential that we make the U.S. see the need to fully assume shared responsibility in this fight,” Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said. “The Obama visit is a chance to cement new cooperation.”

Mexico is also eager to see Washington make immigration reforms and pay greater attention to trade issues, but fears those matters might be obscured by the drug war.

Obama arrives this morning and will remain in Mexico less than 24 hours before continuing Friday to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas, a three-day meeting of the hemisphere’s 34 elected heads of state and government. This is Obama’s presidential debut in Latin America.

Despite Mexico’s urgent needs, the Obama stopover is largely symbolic. It is meant as a show of support for Calderon’s administration and reassurance to Mexico and the region of U.S. engagement.

The trip “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, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council.

Thus far, the Obama administration has promised to put more agents along the border, step up southbound inspections, accelerate release of portions of the $1.4 billion in aid allotted under the so-called Merida Initiative and reexamine domestic drug-use policies.


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton won praise during a trip to Mexico last month in which she said Americans’ “insatiable” appetite for drugs was largely to blame for the problem. It was, in the Mexican view, the most explicit acknowledgment of “co-responsibility” to date, and Calderon’s government believes all of these steps signal a new approach. Still, officials say they are waiting to see the fruits of the changing policy.

“The rhetoric has been right. Now what’s needed is to put something on the table,” said Andres Rozental, founder of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy foreign minister.

“No more words, no more plans, no more little pats on the back like I used to get for six years,” Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, said in a television interview aired Wednesday, apparently alluding to a folksy but ineffectual relationship with former President Bush. “You have to act, and it’s time to act.”

Mexico would like the United States to revive an assault weapons ban that lapsed during the Bush administration, for example.

“It must be said that since the ban expired in 2004, our seizures of assault weapons in Mexico have gone through the roof,” Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. “There’s a direct relationship between the expiration of the ban and the increase in assault weapons coming into Mexico and being seized by Mexican authorities.”

But Obama’s administration has all but ruled out reinstating the ban. On the eve of his visit, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, Obama imposed financial sanctions against three Mexican drug cartels and threatened to prosecute Americans who do business with them.


Many in the Calderon government are already looking beyond Merida, seeking access to new money and technology that do not depend on the whims and slow pace of the U.S. Congress. They have privately complained that the assistance provided in the Merida plan is insufficient compared with the billions of dollars at the disposal of traffickers.

Calderon’s offensive against the drug gangs has consisted primarily of deploying 45,000 army troops to the most violent areas of the nation, including traditional drug-producing centers such as the state of Sinaloa, and border cities like Tijuana.

Separately, and less successfully, he is attempting to reform major institutions by purging and retraining corrupt police forces, changing the way trials are conducted and pushing legislation to make it possible to investigate money laundering. It is in these latter “institution-building” measures that U.S. aid is especially critical, Mexican officials say.

While Obama is expected to focus on the drug war, Mexicans have other issues they want to raise.

On immigration, Mexico favors an expanded temporary-workers program that would allow Mexicans to travel back and forth over the border legally and expeditiously. About half of the 12 million illegal immigrants said to be living in the U.S. are Mexican, and regularizing their status is a priority for Calderon’s government.

Obama has pledged to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, but it’s a politically sensitive topic in the U.S., where there is no consensus. The issue is particularly sensitive during times of economic downturn.


The economies of the two countries are closely interconnected, and the crisis in the U.S. is felt acutely here. Remittances and exports of manufactured goods and oil -- Mexico’s principal income providers -- are all declining. Another point of contention is a dispute over Mexican long-haul trucks, which under the North American Free Trade Agreement are supposed to be allowed to transport cargo in the U.S. The Obama administration suspended the program; Mexico retaliated by slapping tariffs on $2 billion worth of fruit, electronics and other U.S. exports destined for Mexico.

Relations between the U.S. and Mexico, neighbors sharing a 2,000-mile border, have always been complex and fraught with contradictory impulses: admiration, mistrust, pride, prejudice, victimization.

Calderon became especially alarmed, however, when American analysts and officials late last year began to speak of Mexico as a potential failed state. Much of Obama’s mission, and the earlier visits here of Clinton and other senior U.S. officials, has been aimed at mending that damage.

“Just as Americans don’t have friends, they have interests, we Mexicans should see the Americans not as friends but as interests, our interests,” said Raymundo Riva Palacio in his online newspaper Eje Central. “After all, what most hurts us these days also hurts them. For the first time, Mexico’s top-priority problems are the same as the United States’.”


Staff writer Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.