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Drug War, H1N1 Virus Top Mexico Summit Agenda

August 10, 2009 at 2:23 PM EDT
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From drug violence to H1N1 flu, President Obama, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tackled a long list of issues at a summit Monday.
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JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: health care and seniors; the discount culture; and transportation priorities.

That follows the summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, where U.S.-Mexican cooperation and tension topped the agenda. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: From border violence and drugs to trade wars and trucking to the swine flu pandemic, the list of pressing issues was long at today’s summit meeting between President Obama, making his second trip to Mexico, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Their post-summit news conference quickly turned to the escalating border violence between drug cartels and the Mexican government.

NewsHour’s special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reported on that situation from Mexico earlier this summer.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Mexican city of Juarez just across the boarder from El Paso, Texas, looks like it’s under military occupation. Police and soldiers patrol streets and man roadblocks. The show of force which began in March is designed to intimidate violent drug cartels who are fighting each other and the police.

A woman killed recently as she drove a car filled with passengers was one of three murder victims on the same day. Last year in Ciudad Juarez, there were 1,600 killings. That’s more than double the murder rate in the most violent city in the U.S.

Police have determined that thousands of weapons they’ve seized were smuggled into Mexico from the United States. Since Mexico has strict gun control laws, its government demanded the U.S. reduce the flow of firearms across the border.

The Obama administration has pledged millions of dollars to trace and interdict weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under the so-called Merida Initiative, the U.S. has promised $1.4 billion in aid to help Mexico fight the drug violence.

Today in Guadalajara, President Obama talked up that cooperation and praised Calderon’s efforts.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have already seen resources transferred, equipment transferred in order to help President Calderon in what is a very courageous effort to deal with a drug cartel — set of drug cartels that are not only resulting in extraordinary violence to the people of Mexico, but are also undermining institutions like the police and the judiciary system that, unless stopped, will be very damaging to the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Obama also joined President Calderon in defending the Mexican government’s crackdown amid criticisms over alleged human rights violations.

BARACK OBAMA: I have great confidence in President Calderon’s administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that’s consistent with human rights.

The biggest by far violators of human rights right now are the cartels themselves that are kidnapping people and extorting people and encouraging corruption in these regions. That’s what needs to be stopped; that’s what President Calderon is committed to doing; and that’s what I’m committed to helping President Calderon accomplish as long as he is president of Mexico.

FELIPE CALDERON, president, Mexico (through translator): There have been a very scrupulous effort to try to protect human rights in all cases. And anyone who says the contrary certainly would have to prove this, any case, just one case where the proper authority has not acted in a correct way that the competent authorities have not punished anyone who has abused their authority, whether they be police officers, whether they be soldiers, or anyone else.

We have a clear commitment with human rights, we have met this commitment, and we will continue to do so.

Obama to Prioritize Agenda

Andres Martinez
New America Foundation
There's a receptiveness in Mexico to the fact that the U.S. has said the drug war is a shared responsibility. I think what we need to see now is a commitment that matches us that rhetoric and that assumption of responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: On economic matters, a dispute over letting Mexican trucks operate in the U.S. did not come up publicly. The U.S. Congress halted a pilot program this year. In retaliation, Mexico imposed billions of dollars in tariffs on U.S. goods.

The so-called "buy American" clause in the U.S. economic stimulus plan did come up. Both Canada and Mexico opposed the provision that said public works projects receiving stimulus money must use U.S.-made materials.

One longstanding issue, illegal immigration, took a back seat at the summit. Still, President Obama said he hopes to have draft legislation by the end of the year.

BARACK OBAMA: I've got a lot on my plate. And it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time. And what we've said is, in the fall, when we come back, we're going to complete health care reform. We still have to act on energy legislation that has passed the House, but the Senate, I'm sure, is going to have its own ideas about how it wants to approach it. We still have financial regulatory reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: The leaders also pledged to fight swine flu, an epidemic that started in Mexico and continues to spread. In a joint statement, they said they would share expertise and enhance the exchange of information.

And for more on all of this, we're joined by Andres Martinez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He was previously editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Denise Dresser, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico in Mexico City, she's a Mexican citizen.

And Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington.

Andres Martinez, cooperation here, tension there. In general terms, what is the state of U.S.-Mexico relations?

ANDRES MARTINEZ, New America Foundation: The state of the relationship is -- it's a bit like a tired marriage that's in need of counseling. And we're at a stage where both parties have agreed to undergo counseling, it seems.

We have these opportunities whenever you have a new administration. Clearly, there's an additional timely peg with the escalating violence. I think there's a receptiveness in Mexico to the fact that the U.S. has said the drug war is a shared responsibility. I think what we need to see now is a commitment that matches us that rhetoric and that assumption of responsibility, because so far what we're seeing in terms of actual assistance and collaboration falls short.

JEFFREY BROWN: Denise Dresser, how do you see the general state of play?

DENISE DRESSER, Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico: Well, I think that the climate for cooperation has improved since President Obama came in to office. And Hillary Clinton's trip to Mexico in recent months, where she espoused the rhetoric of co-responsibility, has helped a great deal in that regard.

But I think we have to transition from the rhetoric of collaboration to the reality of it. And that would entail the U.S. assuming greater responsibility for arming the drug wars.

I think one of Mexico's greatest concerns is the lack of progress on stopping the influx of weapons that cross from the United States into Mexico on a daily basis. And I think that that is a continuing topic of concern in the bilateral relationship.

Drug War Bonds U.S. and Mexico

Andrew Selee
Woodrow Wilson Center
I would say overall that the drug violence is what has really been actually the glue that surprisingly has brought the two countries closer together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Selee, so pick up -- is that, in fact, the major flash point at the moment, the drug violence at the boarder?

ANDREW SELEE, Woodrow Wilson Center: Well, I would say overall that the drug violence is what has really been actually the glue that surprisingly has brought the two countries closer together, something that is so complicated and addressing it is so complex, and yet it's really lent itself, because of a certain maturity on both sides of the border, to trying to find some strategies, working on this together.

There are -- however, because it's such a complicated issue, it lends itself to a lot of potholes along the way. I mean, one of these is clearly the arms question, whether the U.S. can do more on that, or the $15 billion to $25 billion in money that flows from the U.S. to Mexico.

On the other side of the border, there's concerns about whether police reform and judicial reform are proceeding apace, how fast this can move. Clearly, Mexico is making a huge investment in this, doing it as fast as they can, but it takes a long time, and whether there are sufficient changes to make sure that human rights violations are prosecuted.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see it, Andres Martinez, the drug war, so to speak? What are the flashpoints on both sides?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: It's definitely the issue that's focusing attention, although, you know, related to what Andrew was saying, I think one of the dangers and the pitfalls that we keep falling in to in this relationship is being obsessed by one issue at a time and losing sight of how interconnected these issues are.

You know, immigration reform, the fact that so many people are forced to cross illegally, well, a lot of the coyotes that bring these people across are also part of, you know, larger drug cartels. So you can't sort of talk about smuggling of one type one year and smuggling of another type the next year.

The border is porous. These two economies are so interconnected in so many different ways. So whether you're talking about the trucking dispute or environmental questions or even, you know, the flu, which is one of these issues that popped up earlier this year, it's just a reminder that there's a complexity to this, the intertwined countries that we have, and we can't just pretend that we can treat it as a single-issue issue relationship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Denise Dresser, staying again with the drug violence, we mentioned this issue, the concerns that some people have here over the human rights -- alleged human rights violations there in Mexico that seems to be holding up, perhaps, some of the cooperation. How is that seen in Mexico?

Human Rights Concerns over Military

Denise Dresser
Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico
it's clear that the war on drugs that Felipe Calderon has espoused has produced some collateral damage. There's been a spike in the number of cases brought before the Human Rights Commission.

DENISE DRESSER: Well, it's clear that the war on drugs that Felipe Calderon has espoused has produced some collateral damage. There's been a spike in the number of cases brought before the Human Rights Commission. The number has increased almost 600 percent, reaching 140 cases a month.

And I think this is the byproduct of an army that has been brought out to fill in the holes that the Mexican police -- weakened, corrupt, not strong enough to deal with the drug war -- it has left many of its daily tasks in hand of an ill-trained military that is doing the best it can in a very complex, difficult situation, but at the same time, incurring, in a series of mistakes that are leading to -- leading Mexicans to question whether or not the army should stay as a permanent force on the streets.

Human Rights Watch released a report a couple of months ago called "Uniformed Impunity," where it very clearly documented over 17 cases in which the army has been engaged in rapes, in arbitrary detentions, in disappearances, and extracting confessions with torture.

And I think this is a cause for concern among certain members in the U.S. Congress and all of those who are following the implementation of the so-called Merida Initiative, the aid package that the U.S. is giving Mexico.

It contains a condition, and one of them is that, for example, military officers who engage in human rights abuses be prosecuted in civilian courts. And this is a commitment that the Mexican government made that it has been very reticent to own up to.

I think that Felipe Calderon is really caught between a rock and a hard place, because at the same time that he needs to rely on the military, he is coming under attack for precisely the violations that are occurring as a result of, as I said, the collateral damage of this war.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So, Andrew, as we continue walking through the issues that you've all raised here, the hottest economic, the trade issue is the truck issue. Now, this goes back to NAFTA, right?

ANDREW SELEE: Yes, it goes back to NAFTA. There is a commitment from the U.S. to allow -- actually, from both countries -- to allow long-haul trucks to come in to the other country. It's something the U.S. hasn't implemented yet.

We had a pilot program going for a while that would allow a small number of trucking companies that were previously vetted to do long-haul trucking into the U.S., Mexican companies, and that was suspended by Congress earlier this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because of opposition...

ANDREW SELEE: Primarily by the Teamsters, but also a number of members of Congress. It passed overwhelmingly, concerns about safety, concerns about standards.

The Obama administration has admitted that the U.S. is in violation of its treaty obligations and has been working with Congress to try and come up with a new demonstrations program.

The Mexican government has reacted very calmly to this. I mean, they've put a few sanctions on the U.S., but they haven't raised yet a lot of noise, because they're really hoping the Obama administration lives up to its word and is able to do something with Congress.

Both sides have reacted, I think, trying to -- in a way of trying to fix this as soon as possible.

Mexico Affected by U.S. Recession

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Andres, that kind of an issue, the "buy America" issue, these things all clearly go to the question of the economic crisis, I suppose, right...

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and how much that's affected relations overall?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Well, it's symptomatic of what Mexicans perceive to be a lack of fairness in dealings and a lack of appreciation for how much Mexico changed in the last decade to play by the American rules.

Ironically, Mexico, like a lot of other emerging markets and developing countries, kind of -- you know, they took the medicine that was prescribed to them by, you know, back in the Clinton years by Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, and they balanced their budgets, and they implemented very responsible macroeconomic policies.

And this year, Mexico is suffering the result in many ways of a financial contagion that emanated here in the United States, that traveled from north to south, as opposed to in the '90s when you had these blow-ups in Argentina, in Turkey, in Mexico.

So for Mexican middle-class people whose living standards are being severely hit -- I mean, GDP in Mexico last quarter fell 10 percent -- now, that's largely a result, also, of the swine flu coming on top of this -- but there's a feeling that we played by the American rules, but now the U.S. hasn't abided by its own prescription that it gave to us. It didn't live within its means; it didn't balance its budgets. And now it's not playing fair, in terms of its own obligations under the NAFTA, whether we're talking about the trucking issue or the "buy American" policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Denise Dresser, just in our last minute, I do want to ask you about the flu. We've brought it up a few times here. Is that an example of, well, a moment of cooperation, where things seem to have worked out all right in terms of exchange of information and reaction response?

DENISE DRESSER: Yes. As Andrew mentioned, the relationship is complex, it's multi-faceted, it's multi-layered. And issues like the swine flu and the collaboration that ensued in the aftermath of the outbreak are a necessary reminder of how collaboration can occur on multiple levels beyond the difficult, thorny issues that will be difficult to resolve in the future, such as immigration and drugs.

I think that issues related to the environment, perhaps to energy, to health, there could be fertile ground for collaboration. And just a change in the rhetoric from the Bush years to now a necessary recognition on the part of the U.S. of how much it needs to contribute in terms of resolving the drug issue, I think that's helped a lot to open up the possibility of further collaboration once the economic crisis is surmounted.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Denise Dresser, Andrew Selee, and Andres Martinez, thank you all very much.