Drugs Provide No High at Mexico Summit

BY Michael D. Mosettig  May 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM EDT

Screen grab of Mexican flag

President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto may have hoped that drugs and violence would not grab most of the headlines of their Thursday summit in Mexico City. But events may be conspiring against them.

Especially for the new Mexican leader, the agenda for the meeting was to focus on economics and his reform programs that resemble a combination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt big ideas rolled into one. And President Obama was more than ready to go along, highlighting an expanding economic relationship with the rapidly growing southern neighbor now reaching half a trillion dollars in annual trade alone.

“The president of Mexico is trying to change the narrative from security to economic reform,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue who just returned from the capital.

“The mood in Mexico is upbeat. There is a lot of optimism,” Shifter said.

Indeed, Pena Nieto’s reform plans have been almost as much the talk of Washington as they are in Mexico City. From education to banking to energy, he is pushing programs through the Mexican congress that could dramatically change the country. And drawing even more notice in the U.S. capital is that the leader of the PRI party has won bipartisan support for his agenda in the Pact for Mexico that he put together with the PAN party opposition even before he took office in December.

But Pena Nieto’s security agenda has been much more of a mystery, beyond campaign promises to reduce the violence in a five-year drug war that’s left 60,000 dead and to create a federal police force on the model of European gendarmeries.

Though it is too early in Pena Nieto’s term to determine if a new approach can reduce long-term drug violence, Mexico is still the scene of enough grisly gang murders to show the problems have not gone away. At least 300 deaths were reported in March, including one lurid incident in a southwestern town in which seven bodies were placed in chairs around the town plaza with notes attached to their shirts.

And helping push the security agenda higher was a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post detailing the intense drug war cooperation between Washington and several Mexican agencies during the administration of President Felipe Calderon. That story also substantiated reports that top officials in the Pena Nieto government had been non-commital when asked by Washington if that kind of cooperation would continue.

A more substantial answer came on Monday, when the Mexican government announced that all future cooperation on drug and security issues would be funneled through one Mexican agency, ending the ad hoc arrangements that allowed U.S. civilian and military agencies to develop close working relationships with Mexican officials.

And while the Obama administration asserted its trust in its Mexican counterparts, the developments aroused long-standing Washington fears that the more nationalistic PRI government would reduce cooperation with the Americans as it fashioned a new security policy aimed less at killing kingpins and going after drug caches.

But even without the hot button drug issue, Mr. Obama’s visit coincides with a decisive time on another pivotal issue — immigration. Mexican leaders have expressed growing frustration as Congress failed over the last decade to adopt immigration reform that would open a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented Mexicans in the United States. A bipartisan immigration bill is likely to reach the Senate floor for opening debate during the president’s trip to Mexico and then to Costa Rica for a Central American summit.

At his Tuesday news conference, Mr. Obama insisted the focus of the trip would be on economics.

“We’ve spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border. We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.”

On the drug war, President Obama said he would wait until he talked directly with Pena Nieto before passing judgment on any new Mexican approach.

But there is one indication that economics may eventually trump immigration, according to former U.S. immigration commissioner Doris Meissner. For the past two years, she said, there has been no new net outflow of immigrants from Mexico to the U.S.

Among the reasons, she said, a lower Mexican birthrate, a higher high school graduation rate and an economy that is creating an expanding Mexican middle class.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.