US President Barack Obama has admitted that America shares responsibility for Mexico’s violent struggle against its drug cartels.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: US President Barack Obama has admitted that America shares responsibility for Mexico’s violent struggle against its drug cartels. On his first official visit to Mexico City, President Obama vowed to support Mexico’s fight, promising to slow down the number of US guns being smuggled across the border. More than 7,000 people have been killed in clashes between the drug cartels and Mexican security forces in the last 15 months. North America correspondent Mark Simkin reports.
MARK SIMKIN, REPORTER: Heavily armed police and soldiers lock down the streets of the capital. They know only too well that the drug cartels wield enormous power and high calibre weapons.
It’s the first time Barack Obama’s ventured south of the border as President and he received a warm welcome.
Mexico’s uncivil war dominated the talks. Barack Obama acknowledged his country bears some responsibility for the crisis.
FELIPE CALDERON, MEXICAN PRESIDENT: President Obama, let’s begin a new era in the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
MARK SIMKIN: Despite that, the President suggested he won’t try to reinstate a US ban on assault weapons. Instead, he’s appointed a border czar, says he’ll support a regional weapons treaty and will impose financial sanctions on three of the big Mexican drug cartels. That’ll allow the Government to seize their vast assets.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: A demand for these drugs in the United States is what is helping to keep these cartels in business. This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 per cent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border. So, we have responsibilities as well. We have to do our part. We have to crack down on drug use in our cities and towns, we have to stem the south-bound flow of guns and cash and we are absolutely committed to working in a partnership with Mexico.
MARK SIMKIN: The measures are unlikely to staunch the bloodshed. The drug war killed more than 6,000 Mexicans last year and more than 1,000 so far this year.
LARRY BIRNS, COUNCIL ON HEMISPHERIC AFFAIRS: The power of the drug cartels has become alarming. I mean, they are – they can – you cannot devise protection or safety for anyone – any given person in Latin America. There simply aren’t enough bodyguards around to protect them. We’ve had governors, we’ve had presidential candidates, we had a archbishop killed – all gunned down in Mexico. I can take you from country to country and show you the pillage that has been done to these societies by the drug wars. The drug war has been bad for Latin America. And I just don’t think that US policy-makers have ever attributed sufficient importance to the gravity of the war and the necessity to make a higher commitment of resources to fight in this war.
MARK SIMKIN: Shoot-outs between the police and cartels are increasingly common. This is what the often out-gunned police are up against. Earlier in the week, they found a 20-year-old woman guarding a formidable arsenal. It included an anti-aircraft gun capable of piercing armour from 1,500 metres away.
LARRY BIRNS: The drug cartels have been able to develop a military force of upwards of 100,000 fighters, which is about the size of the Mexican army. The Mexican army isn’t a particularly well-trained army. There’s so much money involved in the drug business. After all, we’re talking about a $50 or $60 billion-a-year industry, and the drug cartels can buy or intimidate anything and anybody.
MARK SIMKIN: It’s become an American problem. The violence is spilling across the border and obviously so are the drugs – in vast quantities. Some American officials fear Mexico could become a failed state and regional experts say the crisis is too complicated to be solved by a few hours of talks.
LARRY BIRNS: In my long history of watching these talks and many Presidents and many talks, they always say they’re great friends. They give each other boots and a sombrero and they say they have a close relationship. Actually, they leave as much of a stranger as which they came. This is not a program, or not a reality, that’s going to be changed by fancy rhetoric. And so this is gonna be a real challenge for President Obama.
MARK SIMKIN: As if to underscore that, cartel foot soldiers opened fire on Mexican troops just hours before Barack Obama arrived in the country. At least 15 people were killed in the battle, a bloody reminder of a US foreign policy challenge that’s a lot closer than Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mark Simkin, Lateline.