Q&A: Calderon Visits U.S. With Security, Immigration in Mind

BY Larisa Epatko  May 19, 2010 at 2:28 PM EST


Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon and President Barack Obama at the White House. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican President Felipe Calderon began a visit to Washington, D.C., Wednesday to discuss a range of issues with President Barack Obama, including immigration, climate change, and trade.

For more on what to expect from Calderon’s visit, the NewsHour spoke with Shannon O’Neil, Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What is President Calderon looking to get out of this trip?

SHANNON O’NEIL: There are two major things that are on the agenda.

One is security. There’s been a buildup of cooperation over the last three years, and he is coming to reaffirm that cooperation, and to get explicit support in that area. The second issue is the issue of immigration and this is particularly in light of what we’ve seen in Arizona. This is really for his domestic audience at home. Mexicans are very upset and as he goes into big gubernatorial elections this July, he needs to take a firm stand on immigration when talking with President Obama to appease that sentiment. Obviously, that is difficult within the United States political context that we see very clearly.

The other two issues that will be put on the agenda are climate change — in the lead-up to the UNFCCC (U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) Cancun summit, and economic issues such as the trucking dispute.

What does President Obama hope to gain?

SHANNON O’NEIL: President Obama is hoping to get a reaffirmation of what has been a quite close relationship over the year. Obama has met with Calderon several times. They talked as a president-elect, Obama went to Mexico in April and August of last year, they’ve met on sidelines of multilateral meetings, and a whole host of Cabinet and high-ranking officials have gone to Mexico City. Furthermore, first lady Michelle Obama’s first solo trip was to Mexico.

Can you describe some of the legitimacy issues affecting Calderon?

SHANNON O’NEIL: The legitimacy questions are really on Calderon’s agenda. Security is the signature issue of his presidency. What we’ve seen so far is a militarized approach to the cartels, alongside the build-up of a federal police force. But violence has just increased, so today there is a waning of public support for the way the war on narcotrafficking has been conducted. To strengthen the legitimacy of the continued fight, the Calderon government — along with the U.S. government — has begun moving away from the military focus to take out high-value targets, to an approach that encompasses a much broader spectrum of issues. They are talking about a 21st century border that incorporates more technology and can weed out good trade from bad trade, and about building resilient communities, which really means getting at socioeconomic factors that contribute to youths going into the drug trade.

And how have such new initiatives been received?

SHANNON O’NEIL: The idea of these initiatives has been received quite well. But they are quite new, and it is not clear how they will be implemented. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a delegation to Mexico in March, to affirm these new directions, but most of the programs are still on the drawing board. Calderon is now more than halfway through his term. His political ability to move security cooperation in this new direction is uncertain. Even if it is implemented, these new party issues — changing the way the border works is a long-term and cooperative process with the United States and others to change the underlying institutions and structures — is going to be very important. There is not going to be a turnaround over night.

What does Calderon need from the United States to improve security?

SHANNON O’NEIL: The governments have already been working together on the Merida Initiative for the last three years, providing equipment and some training to Mexico. The Obama administration has already laid out, with the Calderon government, a new direction for future funding. These new programs will be much less focused on the military, expanding to focus on the border and on building communities. During these last few years, we’ve also seen a real increase in cooperation and intelligence sharing, back in forth between agencies as well. Calderon is coming for legitimization of the approach being taken to make sure that is really solidified in the U.S., in Congress, and not just with Obama. He wants to make sure that the U.S. is on board for the long haul.

Are trade issues also on the table?

SHANNON O’NEIL: Trade issues will come up. Particularly there’s been a contentious issue about trucking, this was part of the NAFTA treaty signed in 1993, and a U.S. pilot program under President George H.W. Bush allowed pre-screened trucks to come across the borders, but it was canceled last year. Both sides want an agreement, and Mexico wants a path forward to allowing drivers into the U.S. Some states would like a resolution as well. This will be an issue that is talked about. The Obama administration says a resolution will be coming very, very soon. What it is, though, remains to be seen.

On Wednesday’s NewsHour, watch a wrap-up of the first day of Calderon’s visit, and a report by our partners at GlobalPost about the medical technicians who are called to scenes of violence in the Mexican border town of Juarez.

Jamie Ostroff contributed reporting.