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As Mexico’s Calderon Visits White House, Drug Violence Tests Alliance

President Barack Obama, right, speaks to Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president, during an official state arrival on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 19, 2010. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Against the backdrop of rampant drug war-fueled violence, the recent killing of a U.S. immigration agent and revelations from leaked cables, Mexican president Felipe Calderon is in Washington for a series of meetings with President Obama and members of Congress and the U.S. business community this week. The visit is aimed at bolstering a bilateral relationship that has faced myriad challenges on both sides of the border as the flow of drugs and immigrants tests both governments.

Doubts about the government expressed in cables made public by WikiLeaks, part of an ongoing dump of some 250,000 classified U.S. documents, have caused further strain. In the cables, the ambassador expressed frank concerns about the country’s law-enforcement bodies and government corruption, according to a brief by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Last week, in an unusually critical interview, Calderon told the Mexican newspaper El Universal that despite praise from President Obama and President Bush, “institutional cooperation” has been “notoriously insufficient” and that the U.S. has not done enough to reduce demand or clamp down on the cross-border flow of weapons. He criticized the U.S. ambassador, Carlos Pascual, saying his “ignorance has translated into a distortion of what is happening in Mexico.”. His comments stemmed in part from the revelations from those leaked cables.

That demand is at the heart of the cartels’ resilience, as a lucrative business makes turf battles that much more violent and bloody. While the U.S. bolsters Mexico’s anti-cartel law-enforcement efforts, “There is.. a perennial question: how do you lower consumption that feeds the demand and makes drug business profitable,” said Andrew Selee, director the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

On Feb. 15, an SUV carrying two U.S. agents working in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit were shot on a highway in central Mexico. The attack claimed the life of Jaime Zapata and wounded his colleague, Victor Avila. Though Mexican authorities have detained several suspects from a drug gang in connection with the attack, the details of the attack — and how it was planned — remain murky. The killing underscores the danger and lawlessness that the growing drug war has brought throughout Mexico–destabilizing even previously safe parts of the country and claiming 34,000 lives in the past four years as federal forces have ramped up their efforts.

Despite close cooperation between law enforcement agencies and both governments, the relationship between Calderon’s government and the U.S. has not been without a few bumps in the road. In the fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the powerful drug cartels operating in Mexico as an “insurgency” and compared it to the state of Colombia two decades ago — much to Calderon’s ire. Two years ago, a U.S. report saying Mexico was at risk of becoming a “failed state” was also a source of irritation.

The ties that bind, however, are also dire and compelling. Drug violence has largely played out in its most brutal form south of the border, but demand for drugs within the U.S. has played a key role in perpetuating the rivalry between cartels for the lucrative market and the intensive efforts to smuggle them through. The U.S. has pledged $1.4 billion in equipment and training. And as the drug war in Mexico has increased, a shift of sorts from the battles in Colombia that dominated headlines in the 1990s, cooperation has also largely grown in tandem.

That cooperation has led to more arrests and greater resources, but some say the federal crackdown lacks strategy. “The government is too focused on capturing heads of the cartels, arresting traffickers, here and there. But their efforts are not unified and very sporadic,” said Denise Dresser of the Pacific Council on International Policy. “They need to do more of what Colombia did successfully by stopping financial flows, laundering, and undertaking strong anti-corruption campaign against high-level politicians.”

In a recent series of reports on the NewsHour, Bill Neely of Independent Television news highlighted how the war has played out in the once-safe and prosperous city of Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, called “the most lethal place on earth” and situated near border and El Paso, Tex., and the northern town of Praxedis, where a 21-year old woman has taken on the dangerous job of battling cartels as police chief.

Additional reporting by Mila Sanina

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