Last Thursday, the White House hosted its fifth bilateral meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The meeting marked Calderón’s second visit to the U.S. under the Obama administration. While the previous visit focused mainly on immigration and border issues, last week’s meeting centered on the drug war and trade. The meeting came at a time that experts describe as a “rough patch” in U.S.-Mexico relations. Those relations were already strained following the release of WikiLeaks cables in which U.S. officials sharply criticized Calderón’s drug war efforts. The “crisis blew up” shortly after a popular Mexican newspaper published an interview with Calderón in which he blasted U.S. diplomats and stated that U.S. cooperation in the Mexican drug war is “notoriously insufficient.” Just a few days earlier, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was brutally shot and killed in an alleged roadside attack in Mexico by members of the Zetas drug cartel. These tensions have been further exacerbated by an ongoing commercial trucking dispute and the U.S. immigration debate. “Calderón’s upcoming visit has the potential to break this counterproductive historical cycle,” wrote Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations prior to the visit. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Andrew Selee called the meeting an “outstanding success.” “The meeting with President Obama was challenging, but both sides saw it as extremely positive and an opportunity to get the tone of the relationship on track,” wrote Selee. Yet, with both presidents coming to the end of their terms, the larger political forces within each respective country will play a big role in shaping U.S.-Mexico relations in the months to come.
DRUGS: Calderón has long faced criticism from within and outside Mexico for militarizing the drug war and failing to curb the escalating violence that has resulted in over 22,000 casualties over the past three years. WikiLeaks cables revealed that some U.S. officials are “privately worried that poorly trained Mexican soldiers and a federal police force hobbled by corruption were failing to slow the surging violence.” Despite these concerns, the U.S. was careful to work with, rather than against, Mexico following the murder of agent Zapata. Nonetheless, Zapata’s death brought the concerns expressed in the WikiLeaks cables back to the forefront as Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal publicly compared Mexico’s drug cartels to an “insurgency.” Meanwhile, Calderón responded by calling for more cooperation and noting that drug consumption in the U.S. is what is fueling Mexico’s woes. In preparation for the bilateral meeting, the Obama administration sent Congress a request for $10 billion in funding for programs to reduce U.S. drug consumption. In his speech with Calderón, Obama pledged to continue supporting Mexico’s drug war. “We are very mindful that the battle President Calderón is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it’s also ours,” stated Obama. A senior administration official told the Washington Post that $900 million has been committed in 2011 to the Merida Initiative, a security cooperation between the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. Just a few weeks after Calderón vented his anger about a lack of coordination, he stated that “both governments have taken on our positions as co-responsible parties in the fight against transnational organized crime.” However, some Americas experts still question whether this consensus, which is largely based in a militarized approach, is actually a good thing.
GUNS: In the days following Zapata’s death, the gun which killed the federal agent was traced to a Texas man suspected of attempting to deliver at least 40 firearms to a Mexican drug cartel. The AK-47 was purchased at a U.S. gun show. The news came just a couple of months after a U.S. border agent was killed by weapons linked to a Phoenix gun store that were later smuggled into Mexico. “Members of the Judiciary Committee have received numerous allegations that the ATF sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers, who then allegedly transported these weapons throughout the southwestern border area and into Mexico,” wrote Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in a letter to the acting bureau director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives back in February. Federal authorities have confirmed that over 60,000 U.S. guns have been recovered in Mexico in the past four years. Last time Calderón visited the U.S., he pleaded to a joint session of the U.S. Congress for more help in limiting the flow of weapons to Mexico. “Believe me, many of these guns are not going to honest American hands,” said Calderón. “The Americans, rather than regulating or establishing an adequate drug or immigration or arms legislation have allowed organized crime to regulate those markets,” affirmed Calderón in an interview with Univision. President Obama said last week that he believes “that we can shape an enforcement strategy that slows the flow of guns into Mexico, while at the same time preserving our Constitution.” Yet, what that enforcement strategy will look like is still unclear. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to block the Obama administration from implementing a proposal which would have required gun dealers near the U.S.-Mexico border to alert authorities when they sell within five consecutive business days two or more semiautomatic rifles greater than .22 caliber with detachable magazines.
TRUCKS: For over 16 years, Mexico and the U.S. have been engaged in a bitter cross-border trade dispute. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) granted Mexican trucks that meet certain requirements full access to U.S. roads. Yet, safety, environmental, and labor concerns expressed by U.S. trucking officials, unions, and government authorities have prevented the U.S. from complying with NAFTA’s trucking provision since its enactment. After years of failed negotiation, Mexico responded in 2009 by imposing $2.4 billion worth of retaliatory tariffs on 89 U.S. products. Last week, Obama announced that “after nearly 20 years, we finally have found a clear path to resolving the dispute over trucking between our two countries.” The new plan will reportedly allow in the U.S. Mexican trucks that comply with stringent safety standards. “I look forward to consulting with Congress and moving forward in a way that strengthens the safety of cross-border trucking, lifts tariffs on billions of dollars of U.S. goods, expands our exports to Mexico, and creates job on both sides of the border,” stated Obama. Mexican Economy Minister Bruno Ferrari has already announced plans to cut the tariffs and sign on to a formal agreement in June. Despite the enormous progress made on the issue, the trucking agreement requires congressional approval which may not come so easily. International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jim Hoffa told the Wall Street Journal that the new trucking deal “caves in to business interests at the expense of the traveling public and American workers.” In 2009, the U.S.Chamber of Commerce — which supports the trucking agreement — estimated that the dispute resulted in 25,000 lost American jobs, $2.6 billion in foregone U.S. exports, and $2.2 billion in higher costs for U.S. businesses and consumers.