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U.S.-Mexico Ties May Hinge on Drug War, Economy

January 12, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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President-elect Barack Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Monday, emphasizing the importance of strong U.S.-Mexico relations. Analysts discuss how Mr. Obama may handle the ties in light of Mexico's drug war and the global economic downturn.
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MARGARET WARNER: President-elect Obama’s first meeting with a foreign leader followed tradition, when he met today with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to discuss the U.S.-Mexican agenda.

Mexico is under siege from drug trafficking and the violence that comes with it. Drug-related homicides doubled to 5,400 last year, most of them in Mexican cities near the U.S. border. Also fueling this violence are guns bought legally in the U.S. and smuggled into Mexico.

President Calderon has deployed Mexican troops to take on the drug cartels. And, in 2007, the U.S. pledged $1.4 billion in aid to help. Mr. Obama supported the so-called Merida initiative, which has seen just $300 million go to Mexico so far. Both men highlighted the drug issue when they met with reporters in Washington.

FELIPE CALDERON, president, Mexico: We need to combat together this common problem and fight against organized crime with all our effort and combine the capabilities of our governments.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I’m such an admirer of the work that President Calderon has done on behalf of his country. Not only has he shown leadership in the economy, but he has shown also extraordinary courage and leadership when it comes to the security issues dealing with drug trafficking, dealing with the violence that has existed as a consequence of the drug trade.

And, so, my message today is that my administration is going to be ready on day one to work to build a stronger relationship with Mexico.

MARGARET WARNER: Also on the agenda were immigration, trade, and the current financial crisis.

Calderon will meet with President Bush tomorrow at the White House.

And for more on what to expect in U.S.-Mexico relations in the new administration, we turn to two experts on Mexico.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup is senior associate at the Center For Strategic and International Studies. And Pamela Starr is senior lecturer in international relations and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

Welcome, both of you.

Violence spills over the border

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Peschard, beginning with you, the two leaders -- or soon-to-be-leader and leader -- spoke at length about the drug war in their remarks to the press. Has that become the number-one issue between the United States and Mexico right now?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP, senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, it is an important issue. President Calderon from the outset of his administration pledged to take on the organized crime, the drug cartels in Mexico, and has been resolute in that commitment.

Unfortunately, in so doing, there's been a spike in the narco violence in Mexico. And, so, society wants results. And some of that narco violence has also spilled over into the United States. After all, the United States is the principal market, and the distribution networks are in the United States. So, this is an organized crime that is transnational in nature and operates on both sides of the border.

So, it does behoove both President Calderon and president-elect Obama to try and work together and deepen the U.S.-Mexico cooperation on security.

MARGARET WARNER: Pamela Starr, a statement put out the by Obama transition after the meeting said that president-elect Obama had pledged to -- for more intelligence-sharing, for instance, between the U.S. and Mexico, to help combat the drug cartels.

How serious, though, is the situation? I mean, would you say Mexico is on the verge of becoming, say, a narco state?

PAMELA STARR, senior lecturer in international relations and public diplomacy, University of Southern California: Absolutely not.

The situation in Mexico is serious, but it's far from dire. To put it simply, Mexico is not Pakistan. Mexico has difficulty dealing with, obviously, criminal elements that are operating in many parts of the country really without a lot of opposition from law enforcement.

But what that means is that Mexico is at risk of expending a great deal of natural resources on this particular problem, which makes it difficult for Mexico to deal with other extremely challenging issues.

Just to give you a sense, Mexico this coming year is spending almost 5 percent of its GDP on -- excuse me -- on -- of the budget on security matters. This is in a country where half the population still lives in poverty. So, the greater problem here is that Mexico will weaken over time because it can't deal with other issues, because it's so concentrated on this one particular, serious problem.

Improving border security

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Peschard, what does Mexico expect President Obama to do that President Bush hasn't to help in this?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Well, I think there has to be an increase in intelligence-to-intelligence cooperation, with a focus on the border.

I think the U.S. has neglected intelligence-gathering on the border. And I think it's important. The other is law-enforcement-to-law-enforcement cooperation. It is needed. And I think one of the ways to proceed is with small pilot projects that -- that can not only start to build the confidence that is needed between the institutions from both countries. That is, I think, pivotal.

During the Bush administration, most of the emphasis has been on the creation of Northcom and to some extent beefing up border patrol.

MARGARET WARNER: The military command.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Yes, the Northern American Command here in the United States.

I think we have to work together on intelligence from an intelligence standpoint and from a law enforcement standpoint, because, like I said at the outset, these are organizations that operate on both sides of the border. This is not solely a Mexican problem. It is a problem that is in our midst as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Starr, the Mexican government is also complaining about all the guns that are bought legally here in the U.S. and smuggled into Mexico. Now, what can a President Obama do about that?

PAMELA STARR: Well, President Obama has -- did state in this meeting -- or the press release coming out of this meeting noted that he's taking this issue seriously.

Members of the Senate today introduced a bill to spend $30 million in the effort to try to reduce the export, illegal export, of arms. What the United States needs to do is begin thinking about establishing some sort of relationship between both federal authorities and state and local authorities that more -- more effectively govern the export of these illegal products into Mexico. Currently, there really is not a lot of control. Guns go across the border fairly freely.

Impact of the recession

MARGARET WARNER: Now, turning to the economic crisis, because both of them mentioned this, how has the global economic crisis changed the agenda or relationship between the U.S. and Mexico?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Well, the economy is going to be vital, just as it is for president-elect Obama. Given the high level of integration between both of our economies, the recession is already impacting Mexico.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, do you -- if I may just interrupt, do you think it makes the United -- it makes president-elect Obama less likely, for instance, to pursue the changes he wanted in the NAFTA trade accord? And do you think it makes Mexico, say, more or less hopeful that there will be change in immigration law?

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Yes, I think that it is probably more likely that President Obama can achieve an economic recovery working collaboratively with Canada and with Mexico, who are principal trading partners, as opposed to pursuing protectionist measures.

Mexico, for example, is -- ranks among the three top export markets for 27 states. So, it's not just important to Texas, California, and Arizona. The importance of Mexico to the U.S. economy permeates the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Starr, how -- what do you think of that in terms of the trade issue and how the global economic crisis is going to affect that agenda?

PAMELA STARR: Well, there is no question that the global economic crisis affects the bilateral agenda, precisely for some of the things that Armand is mentioning.

The two economies are tightly interrelated. Mexico depends on the U.S. as its main export market for over 80 percent of its exports. The United States increasingly depends on Mexico to -- not only for an export market, but also to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. companies in the global market.

In order to move forward on that agenda, Calderon is more than well aware that Barack Obama needs to fulfill his campaign promises to readjust NAFTA. But Calderon was pleased with the outcome of the meeting on that issue today, given that Obama promised to set up a consultative committee or commission that would listen to Mexican concerns and would try to adjust the revisions of NAFTA, so that they would incorporate some of Mexico's concerns.

WARNER: Can I ask...

PAMELA STARR: So, I think that...

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me.

Mexico as a priority?

MARGARET WARNER: Can I ask just you before we run out of time, very briefly, do you think -- I mean, President Bush, when he came into office -- and I will begin with you, Ms. Starr -- said he wanted to make the U.S.-Mexico relationship more important. But then 9/11 happened. And, so, the relationship didn't really flourish.

Do you think, given everything that is on president-elect Obama's plate, that he really can make this relationship more of a centerpiece than it has been?

PAMELA STARR: I think there are two things to keep in mind about that.

First, there is no question that Mexico was not at the top and is not at the top of Barack Obama's agenda. And, to a great extent, the meeting with Calderon today was a consequence of that tradition of president -- U.S. president-elects meeting with their Mexican counterparts.

That said, there is a unique window of opportunity at this point in U.S.-Mexico relations to improve the bilateral relationship, not only because...

MARGARET WARNER: And may I get a brief -- sorry.

Let me get a brief final word from Mr. Peschard on that. We're just about out of time.

ARMAND PESCHARD-SVERDRUP: Well, it's important not to raise too much expectations out of this meeting.

President Obama is going to be consumed by the economy. I think he's going to have to find those issues that are of mutual interest to both President Calderon and to himself and -- and advance on those issues. But there is no question that President Obama is going to be bogged down with other priorities.

MARGARET WARNER: Armand Peschard-Sverdrup and Pamela Starr, thank you, both.