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Obama-Calderon Summit: Drugs, Immigration, Trucks, Ceviche

3 years ago
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If there's a theme for tonight's White House state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón, it might be "Los labios sueltos hunden barcos," or "Loose lips sink ships" (thank you, Google Translate). As my colleague Lynn Sweet reports, access to the most basic details of the dinner has been treated with Defcon Level 5 security, and the public has been forced to sate itself with chef-for-the-night Rick Bayless' Twitter crumbs (sorta) detailing the "rather small White House kitchen." That, and we know there will be an herb ceviche.

For those interested in the meat of the summit between Presidents Calderón and Obama, not much more is clear, except that there's plenty to talk about. Since 2006, when Calderón began his crackdown on Mexico's drug cartels, nearly 19,000 people have been killed in the ensuing violence, particularly in border cities like Ciudad Juarez, where three people linked to the U.S. Consulate were killed only weeks before First Lady Michelle Obama made her first solo diplomatic tour there.

obama calderon summitThe sharp increase in homicides has dramatically affected the country's tourism industry, but the ratio of deaths per inhabitants, as the New York Times points out today, is still less than that of Washington, D.C. What is perhaps more indelibly etched in the public's imagination is the nature of the deaths themselves (beheadings, dismemberments, faces skinned and stitched onto soccer balls), made particularly grisly to strike fear in the hearts of law enforcement officials, reporters covering the drug war, citizens in the region, and, of course, rival gangs.

Most likely, Obama will try to ease Mexican concerns that
the American appetite for drugs has largely fueled the cartel wars by referring to the White House's recently released National Drug Control Strategy, which aims to shift the focus away from a traditional "war on drugs" and toward increased prevention and treatment programs -- that is, addressing addiction itself and reducing the demand for illegal drugs from across the border. Still, some critics have posited that the strategy's budget for prevention and treatment is far eclipsed by funding for traditional law enforcement and incarceration programs ($10 billion of the projected $15.5 billion budget will go toward traditional arrest and incarceration programs), and the new policy will have little, if any, effect in stanching the demand for drugs. Further, the White House has not yet addressed the flow of U.S.-manufactured weapons and laundered cash into Mexico, largely seen as supporting the drug wars, and a significant concern of Calderón's administration.

If the U.S.-Mexico border has historically been a sensitive topic for bilateral discussions, then
Calderón's visit should prove no exception, for two reasons: Arizona's new immigration law and Mexican trucks. The American president hasn't been shy about his distaste for the recently enacted bill, and neither has his Mexican counterpart. In an interview with Reuters last week, Calderón described elements of the bill as "frankly discriminatory" and "terribly backward." Much of Arizona's immigrant population is Mexican, including relatives of Calderón's.

While the two leaders can agree to disagree with the bill, Obama will use the meeting
to show that the U.S. is committed to substantive (and bilateral!) immigration reform to fix what the White House has openly called a broken system. A senior Mexican official I spoke with noted that Obama's health care win had resulted in increased optimism that he would be able to tackle immigration, but coupled his positive vibrations with a hefty dose of pragmatism, noting that Calderón would likely be surprised if anything materialized in an election year.

But if there's really one topic that the Mexican government would like an answer on, it's probably the thorny issue of giving Mexican trucks access to U.S. roads. Despite the 1993 NAFTA agreement that did just that (among many other provisions), trucker
unions have long been opposed to the measure and Congress has largely fallen in line, blocking Mexican long-haul trucking into the U.S. last year and saying that Mexico must first guarantee the safety of its trucks and drivers. Proponents of giving access to the trucks say it will increase trade and exports and create more jobs here. In the meantime, Mexico has responded to the truck shut-out by slapping taxes on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. goods.

In Obama's two previous meetings with
Calderón (in April of this year and in August of 2009), he promised action on the issue. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made comments earlier this month that Obama's team had been hard at work on the issue and would be announcing an end to the dispute "very soon" --- but the same Mexican official told me that "this is a movie we've seen many times." While he was "optimistic" and said that "progress has been made on the issue, especially in the last few months," they were waiting for the White House "to put their money where their mouth is." Which pretty much leaves us right where we began -- the only thing we can say for certain is: ceviche.


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