Mexican President Comes to Washington: What will come of President Calderón’s visit to Washington?

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• It no longer is just Mexico’s drug war as violence and corruption begins to engulf the U.S.
• No prospect that the U.S. will adequately fund the anti-drug war.
• Drug battle places a crushing strain on Mexican economy.
• If and when barriers to Mexico’s ground transports to the U.S. are entirely lifted, a crisis arising from the smuggling of drugs and migrants into the U.S. is sure to follow.

President Felipe Calderón arrived today in Washington, D.C. for a brief visit. His trip will mark one of the few occasions that may allow a Mexican president in the foreseeable future to penetrate the fog that surrounds his country’s relations with its all-powerful northern neighbor. The Mexican President is expected to address the recently reinvigorated anti-drug strategy and to express his concern over Arizona’s contentious new immigration measure.

The United States and Mexico share a complex relationship with respect to cross-border issues, including free trade, drug trafficking, and the treatment of undocumented Mexicans who migrate illegally to the U.S. Today Mexico is reeling from persistent drug-related violence, which, in recent years, has accounted for tens of thousands of casualties, reflecting one of the highest homicide figures in the world. The disappearance last weekend of Diego Fernández de Cevallo made the former PAN (Partido Acción National) presidential candidate and close personal friend of President Calderón the latest high-profile victim of the conflict.

Recent U.S.-Mexico Relations

President Calderón’s trip to Washington comes soon after a March journey to Mexico City by a high-level U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. With drug-related violence intensifying along the border almost daily, and with the Calderón administration under daily fire for its sharp militarization of the drug war, the U.S. delegation to Mexico announced a revamped $310 million plan as a part of the Mérida Initiative to combat the crisis.

After meeting with Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Secretary Clinton once again acknowledged that the United States is partially responsible for Mexico’s drug crisis, in terms of both the high demand for illicit drugs and the southbound shipment of weapons being illegally funneled into the hands of Mexican cartels. Secretary Clinton framed the expansion of the Mérida Initiative as focused not only on security, but also on “institution building,” as she also emphasized the United States’ interest in “working together to spur social and economic development.”

The new plan also envisions increased cooperation between United States and Mexican law enforcement officials. Greater funding will be allocated for police training rather than only for large-scale military assistance demanded by earlier strategies. But the hard fact is that Mexico will continue to receive insufficient support in it’s attempt to fight its drug wars. This conflict is costing the country billions of dollars a year in direct disbursements and lost opportunities in the tourism and private foreign investment sectors.

Since these meetings in March, the U.S. has demonstrated the nature of its commitment to the priorities that Secretary Clinton and other senior officials highlighted at the time. In April, First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Mexico and spoke about providing alternatives to involvement in the drug trade and the importance of education for young people. The May 8th extradition of Mario Villanueva Madrid demonstrated an example of the “expanding judicial cooperation” between the United States and Mexico.

An important former associate of the Juárez Cartel, Villanueva faces charges related to money laundering and narcotics distribution. His extradition marked a small victory against Mexico’s ever-growing drug establishment. On May 11, President Obama unveiled his 2010 National Drug Control Strategy, which stresses “prevention, treatment, enforcement… [and]…international cooperation.” However, these steps, even taken together, are likely to be more ostensible than real, and are unlikely to have much of an impact on Mexico’s drug plight. Endemic violence in border cities and throughout Mexico, continued U.S. travel advisories regarding Mexico, and controversy sparked by Arizona’s recent controversial immigration legislation, all highlight the failures of both countries’ efforts to stem the crisis.

The U.S. Becomes Engrossed in President Calderón’s War on Drugs

As the Mexican war on drugs persists and continues to claim tens of thousands of lives in lawless zones like Ciudad Juarez, Washington finds itself playing a growing role as an active participant in a conflict that is now engulfing the U.S. as well as Mexico. The U.S. is no longer a peripheral player in a war that used to be mainly Mexico’s to win or lose. Crime, corruption intimidation and the debasement of civic officials is now taking place on the U.S. side of the border as well as in Mexico.

Due to the vicious cycle characteristic of the drug trade across the U.S.-Mexican border and drug consumption within the U.S., Washington has stepped up its response to the violence, devising new strategic alterations of the Bush-era Mérida Initiative through developing a more comprehensive National Drug Control Strategy. While these new commitments to fight Mexico’s notorious drug cartels and to curb domestic drug use are intended to promote U.S. national security, the Obama administration has now plunged into a conflict that will cost billions of dollars (most of it Mexican), and which has no end in sight.

When the Mérida Initiative was drafted in 2008, two years after President Calderón declared the country’s war on drugs, the U.S. government spent some $400 million in Mexico to combat criminal groups linked to the drug trade. Most of those early funds went to providing the Mexican government with military supplies that would help undermine cartel-related activities. From 2008 to 2010, the U.S. spent around $1.3 billion providing equipment and training to Mexican and Central American forces in an effort to interdict the drug traffickers’ activities.

The stated goals of the Mérida Initiative have changed for 2011. The allocated $310 million for Mexico will be directed toward political and institutional reforms, making it hard to believe that this contribution will allow the U.S. to scale back military support in Mexico. In a highly publicized interview with NPR in March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hinted at the current level of U.S. military involvement in Mexico, stating, “Let me be very, very clear (because) this is a very delicate subject… Our military in certain limited ways has been working with the Mexican military in their efforts against the drug cartels. But, [this] is at the request of the Mexican government…”

Only $8 million of the Mérida Initiative’s 2011 funds have been set-aside for “Foreign Military Financing.” However, now that President Calderón is here, he is sure to press Washington for continued, if not increased military assistance, as drug-related violence has extended into the political realm and could prove very damaging to the electoral prospects of the PAN as Mexico approaches its next presidential election.

Because the next stage of the Mérida Initiative will be carried out alongside a new $15.5 billion National Drug Control Strategy, the Obama administration will be pressured to make significant advancements in its own war on drugs, as well as answer key questions about the newly revealed U.S. drug plan. Critics have jumped to denounce the effectiveness of the Mérida Initiative, arguing that Washington’s inability to curb Americans’ appetite for illegal drugs or to control the shipment of illicit arms across the border and into Mexico, has exacerbated the situation in that country. Indeed, violence has increased in Mexico since 2008 (over 3,000 people already have been killed as a result of the drug conflict in 2010), and the Congressional Research Service reported that more than 25 million Americans admitted to using an illegal drug in 2008.

In 2011, the U.S. will aim to improve domestic and Mexican institutions fighting corruption in Mexico and will energize its drug treatment and prevention programs according to the strategies laid out in President Obama’s National Drug Control Strategy and in the latest version of the Mérida Initiative. In theory, the administration’s new plan will attack the roots of drug problems in both countries, shifting away from a purely military-based approach. However, this phase of the war on drugs likely will not depart substantially from the Bush administration’s policy, as a militarized posture remains the Initiative’s primary focus. Additionally, without a timetable for its completion, the policy will demand an enhanced long-term commitment from Washington.

While in Washington, President Calderón will be expected to pressure American officials on their approach toward cutting down drug use and treating abuse in the U.S in years to come. Perhaps more importantly, he will also emphasize the need for continued military and financial support from the U.S. As a result of the war against the cartels on the ground in Mexico, 23,000 lives have been claimed, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in tourism and the estimated $120 billion total cost of the war in recent years, has massively inhibited economic growth. The escalating situation in Mexico, which has also caused immigration into the United States to surge, is increasingly a U.S. problem. It is now up to the skill of the Obama administration to establish the right balance between military assistance and the institutional reform needed to confront this conflict.

NAFTA and the War on Drugs

Since NAFTA’s implementation in 1994, a strong link has developed between the consequences of the agreement and the growth of the drug trade. Subsidized United States agricultural exports have put many Mexican farmers out of business. Employment has caused many to turn to drug cultivation or has forced them to make the epochal decision to attempt to illegally migrate to the U.S. It had a similar effect in other sectors as well, with the burgeoning drug industry buoying parts of the Mexican economy otherwise hurt by “free trade.” As author and journalist Charles Bowden points out, “the drug industry is an essential prop under a faltering Mexican economy and has been so for more than 20 years.” Bowden argues that “the effects wrought by NAFTA launched one of the largest human migrations in the world as poor Mexicans fled collapsing industry and agriculture. Border Patrol statistics show that the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. illegally skyrocketed within two years of the passage of NAFTA.” Those who did not flee to the U.S. entered into the drug trade in large numbers. When one considers that workers in American-owned Mexican maquiladoras today make around $40 a week and have a turnover rate of 100 to 200 percent annually, while the Mexican drug trade pulls in between $30 to $50 billion dollars a year and is always hiring, it is not surprising there is such a magnetic employment pull by the cartels.

While the disruption of local economies certainly played a part in strengthening the cartels’ awesome grip, perhaps the major effect NAFTA has had was on trafficking. Author Ryan Grim, one of the foremost authorities on the history of drug prohibition, notes that “with NAFTA in effect, 1994 saw the biggest jump in commercial-vehicle smuggling on record–a 25 percent increase.” The opening of the border for commercial goods, combined with crackdowns on drug-smuggling routes in the Caribbean and on U.S. methamphetamine production, helped to expand Mexico’s role in the trafficking of coke and meth.

Although President Clinton followed the precedent of increasing funding for the drug war, this had no real impact on the availability of drugs in the U.S. The producers simply shifted suppliers from the Caribbean and Miami to Mexico and the Southwest. As the cultivation of cocaine was so fungible, the finished product price of drugs remained relatively flat, as did demand and availability.

Push for Immigration Reform

As has been observed, the drug wars on both sides of the border have begun fusing together various aspects of the two countries’ foreign and domestic policy. Furthermore, a vicious cycle of illicit drugs, arms smuggling and illegal immigration, has emerged in the midst of a massive surge of violence. As a result, 3,365 lives have been lost in the conflict over drugs and political power between January and March of this year alone.

The debate over immigration is a phenomenon that parallels the drug war, due to the covert intent to cross the U.S. border. Yet, migration has too often been overlooked as a distinct foreign policy issue that is independent from the drug war. Only now are the two sectors fusing. Thus, urgent action needs to be taken in broader regional terms. President Calderón may have played a major part in the current situation, but it is also the U.S. government’s responsibility to do more than repeat the same rhetoric and empty promises regarding comprehensive immigration reform. Until recently, the federal government’s failure to act up to now has caused U.S. states to take the situation into their own hands. This has had a profound impact on Washington’s foreign relations, specifically with Latin American countries like Mexico, and has exposed the national security consequences of a dysfunctional immigration system.

President Calderón slammed Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law that was passed on April 29, stating in a Reuters interview, “It contains elements that are frankly discriminatory, terribly backward…It is affecting [bilateral relations], sadly…” The law makes it a crime to be in the state without proper documentation and gives police officers the right to question an individual and to demand to see one’s papers. The law is the most severe immigration enforcement legislation since Prop 187 in California, which in 1994 declined the right to an education and health care to undocumented persons. Moreover, there are 11 more copycat bills waiting to be put into motion all over the country. All of these are part of a far-right orchestrated political strategy with roots in the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

In a May 17th New York Times article, President Calderón asserted, “Much like you, I have cousins in California, in-laws in New Mexico…that emigrated, that struggle and that live in the United States, many of them hand to mouth.” The U.S. has evolved with immigration trends over time and benefits from a diverse range of cultures that define the country’s character.

There is hope that Calderón’s visit will compel President Obama and his administration to take a more inclusive stance on the issue, or at least to commence a dialogue on the subject. If not, the downward spiral of illegal acts and growing levels of violence will continue in both countries. If immigration reform goes unexamined before Congress takes its summer recess, the omnipresent political firestorm over immigration will persist, and the vicious cycle of drug wars and illegal immigration will continue at the cost of hundreds, if not thousands of more lives.