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Obama Pledges to Help Mexico Fight Flow of Drugs, Guns

April 16, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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During a visit to Mexico, President Barack Obama pledged renewed U.S. support to help curb the country's drug-related violence. Analysts mull the possible policy changes.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we go to Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a citizen of both Mexico and the United States.

And Robert Pastor, co-director of North American studies at American University. He served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration.

Welcome, Professors, both.

Bob Pastor, beginning with you, we heard President Obama and President Calderon pledge close cooperation in this drug war. How close are they really, these two administrations, in how they see the problem and how they want to tackle it?

ROBERT PASTOR, American University: I think they’re much closer than they’ve ever been. I think they have ushered in a new era away from the finger-pointing between Mexico and the United States blaming each side for the other side of the problem to recognizing you can’t manage the problem, let alone solve it, unless you feel a certain shared responsibility.

I think President Obama has now pledged to accelerate the funding under the Merida Initiative. He’s pledged to…

MARGARET WARNER: That was the initiative that actually President Bush proposed?

ROBERT PASTOR: President Bush, last year.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is more money for, what, Black Hawk helicopters, other kinds of technical assistance?

ROBERT PASTOR: Exactly. In June of 2008, President Bush encouraged Congress to move very rapidly, but, in fact, none of the $1.4 billion has actually been transferred as of yet.

I think President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both talked about the importance of doing something about the guns coming from the U.S. to Mexico, something important about stopping the money laundering that’s going in, and something important about doing the demand side of the problem, through health and education in the United States, which we have been neglecting.

Mexican, U.S. governments closer

Allert Brown-Gort
Notre Dame University
I think that Mexico probably takes a view that, as long as the United States is trying to criminalize the problem only, that it is an unwinnable war...

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Brown-Gort, how do you see it? Do you think that the two governments are closer in how they see the problem and how they're trying to address it?

ALLERT BROWN-GORT, Notre Dame University: Oh, I agree totally with Professor Pastor. I think they are closer -- the two governments are closer than they have been in years.

And it really is an idea of a mutual responsibility, of a responsibility that is on both sides. I think President Calderon began this in his first meeting with President Bush, but I think it really took the Obama administration to come in, particularly Secretary Clinton's visit to Mexico City last month, when we really started to see that the dialogue was one of accepting that the responsibility lay on both sides of the border.

In the end, though, I wonder whether they are totally close in what constitutes victory in the war on drugs.

MARGARET WARNER: And that is because?

ALLERT BROWN-GORT: Well, I think because the United States thinks that victory in the war on drugs would mean an end to having the problem of drugs. And I think that Mexico probably takes a view that, as long as the United States is trying to criminalize the problem only, that it is an unwinnable war and that, therefore, what they should do is they should try and raise the costs of doing business in Mexico and have the cartels go elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: How significant do you think there is this sort of difference in aims, Professor Pastor? For instance, Janet Napolitano said in the last couple of days that the aim was to take out the cartels and that the Mexicans do use different language. Is that significant?

ROBERT PASTOR: I don't think so. I think they all realize that they have to dramatically dismantle the cartels and try to end organized crime, but I think they're sufficiently realistic -- and President Obama and his press conference underscored -- that we're not going to finish with this problem.

Drug trafficking, like immigration, like all of the issues that characterize our relations with our two closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, are transnational. We need to manage them much better than we have in the past. We need to manage them as partners, or perhaps even in trilateral framework, more effectively than we ever have before, but you're not going to solve the drug-trafficking problem or the drug problem, for that matter.

Domestic, foreign policy combined

Robert Pastor
American University
If Americans were being killed by guns coming in from Mexico, you can be sure that we would be imposing on Mexico their need to change their laws.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Brown-Gort, what would Mexico like to see the United States do more? For example, I noticed that President Calderon has really said he'd like to see the assault weapons ban reinstated here. President Obama campaigned on that, but said today, essentially, that for now he would concentrate on enforcing current gun laws.

Is that a significant difference? Is there more in other areas that the U.S. could be doing from Mexico's point of view?

ALLERT BROWN-GORT: Oh, I think there is always in some ways more that could be done in one specific area or another. However, I think that the important thing here is, really, that there is a sense of shared mission, that there is a sense of partnership.

I think Professor Pastor is correct that, as we integrate our economies more and more, that we really need to start looking at these issues -- not only drugs, but also, for example, immigration -- as things that need to be solved across both countries or even with Canada, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: But taking on some of these issues, Professor Pastor, implies a political cost here for President Obama.

ROBERT PASTOR: Absolutely. The most important issues are also the most difficult domestically.

See, these are not foreign policy issues anymore. They're both domestic and foreign policy.

To comply with NAFTA, we have to let Mexican trucks in. Well, the Teamsters and trucking companies don't really want that. And the only way you can make that happen is the president has to encourage the Congress to understand this is part of an agreement and we're asking Mexico to do things that are very hard for them.

And, similarly, we have to at some level address this issue with the national rifleman's association. If you're really going to stop much of the weapons from going into Mexico, we have to deal with some gun laws in the United States.

If Americans were being killed by guns coming in from Mexico, you can be sure that we would be imposing on Mexico their need to change their laws.

And so we need to think about these issues in a very different way than we ever have before. We have to realize we're part of a larger community right now.

Corruption a huge problem

Allert Brown-Gort
Notre Dame University
In Mexico, there's the saying that is called, "Plomo o plata." "I'm going to either give you lead -- a bullet -- or I'm going to give you plata, silver, money." So the amount of money makes it very, very difficult to control corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Brown-Gort, is there more Mexico could be doing, for example, on the corruption side?

ALLERT BROWN-GORT: Well, I think, on the corruption side, sure, certainly there is more that Mexico could be doing. Mexico could be doing a lot to change the infrastructure, the political infrastructure that it has in place.

But the other thing that we need to think about is that the sheer amount of money and the weapons are something that are feeding the corruption, the endemic corruption in Mexico.

In Mexico, there's the saying that is called, "Plomo o plata." "I'm going to either give you lead -- a bullet -- or I'm going to give you plata, silver, money." So the amount of money makes it very, very difficult to control corruption.

And so, in some ways, the most important part of the Merida Initiative is not so much the things that we tend to concentrate on, which are the helicopters and the other gizmos that we can use for drugs, but rather the structural assistance, the technical assistance to strengthen the police in Mexico so that this struggle can be demilitarized and moved over as a police function.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line, very quickly from both of you, do you think at the end of four years, at the end of both of these presidents' first term, that we will see that something substantial was achieved or is this a sort of symbolic "we're in a new era, a new relationship," but nothing much will change?

ROBERT PASTOR: Well, that remains to be seen. I think there is a determination that both presidents have now enunciated to do something about this, but I think very soon they're going to have to realize they have to fit this into a broader context, because our economic and social relationship in many ways is much more important or at least as important as this.

MARGARET WARNER: As the drugs.

ROBERT PASTOR: And we haven't really addressed that yet.

Tone, focus of relations changing

Robert Pastor
American University
Both presidents have now enunciated to do something about this, but I think very soon they're going to have to realize they have to fit this into a broader context.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Brown-Gort, do you think we'll look back on this as significant?

ALLERT BROWN-GORT: I will agree. I think it is fundamentally significant. I mean, I think there is a different way of dealing with the government in a way that is much more open and much more of a partnership.

Mexico is really looking to change its bilateral relationship with the United States, which tends to take on a monomaniacal tone. It was drugs, immigration, drugs. Mexico has many other issues; the United States has many other issues, trade among them, energy, and we're going to have to deal with those issues.

And as Professor Pastor was saying, that we have to deal with the National Rifle Association, Mexico at some point or another is going to have to deal with its oil law, which prohibits the investment of foreign firms.

Every country has their little idiosyncratic things in their political system, but we have to understand that in a new world we really need to give a little bit to be able to take a little bit.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and I'm going to have to take us away now, but, Professor Brown-Gort and Professor Pastor, thank you both.

ROBERT PASTOR: Thank you.

ALLERT BROWN-GORT: Thank you.