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A Crucial U.S.-Mexico Summit

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies
February 28, 2011

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The surprise announcement of President Felipe Calderón's trip to Washington is a chance to right a teetering relationship. On March 2-3, the Mexican president will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner, and members of the U.S. business community. This trip could prove an important turning point in U.S.-Mexico relations. It will, assuredly, be a defining test of Calderón's statesmanship.

U.S.-Mexico relations have hit a rough patch. The February 15 attack on two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raised the stakes for the U.S. government in Mexico's drug war. Agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were driving to Mexico City from Monterrey when drug cartel gunmen intercepted, then fired upon their armored SUV. Zapata died and Avila was wounded. Though the details remain unclear--whether it was a carjacking gone wrong, a case of mistaken identity, or a calculated hit--the idea that drug traffickers would target U.S. officials sent chills through the U.S. embassy and beyond. And the attack lays bare the security challenges Mexico faces in securing even the country's main thoroughfares.

As U.S. officials worked through the ramifications of Zapata's death, longer-standing simmering grievances within Mexico's government boiled over. Behind the scenes, many experts and officials recognized the serious damage done to U.S.-Mexico relations by by WikiLeaks' revelations late last year. Secret cables signed by current Ambassador Carlos Pascual on December 17, 2009, and Deputy Chief of Mission John Feeley on January 29, 2010, in particular presented unfiltered assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the Mexican government's security efforts, pointing to a hidebound Mexican army, infighting between Mexico's various security institutions, and worries about corruption and human rights abuses. While in line with the views of numerous independent analysts--as well as many security officials in their more candid moments--the leaks have embarrassed the Calderón government, and provided fodder for rival politicians as the Mexican electoral arena heats up for 2011 gubernatorial races and the 2012 presidential contest.

In a wide-ranging and sensational interview in El Universal, one of Mexico's leading newspapers, on February 22, Calderón vented his anger. He accused the U.S. diplomats of "laying it on thick," distorting and exaggerating their analyses for ulterior motives. He went further, saying the lack of coordination and rivalry was not on the Mexican but the U.S. side, between ICE, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Central Intelligence Agency. The vitriol was so strong that U.S. Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano formally responded the next day, asserting that not only did U.S. agencies work well together, they did so closely with their Mexican counterparts.

Historically, it is remarkable that the two countries have gotten along this well for so long. For decades, the bilateral relationship has had fits and starts--beginning with expansive promises from new presidents, ending with bitter divisions. Domestic politics were often behind the fracture, as Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) painted the United States as the great imperialist to justify its excesses and heavy political hand, and U.S. administrations changed course at the first hint of domestic opposition. Just as often personal differences, and real and perceived affronts, sank once promising bilateral ties.

Calderón's upcoming visit has the potential to break this counterproductive historical cycle, principally by getting the two countries' conversation back on track. That will require strong leadership from Calderón himself. Can he rise above personal grievances and his not unjustified frustrations with the United States to become the rare Mexican president who succeeds during his term in moving the bilateral relationship forward?

This trip will test U.S. policy and commitment to Mexico. The now often repeated rhetoric of co-responsibility and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's heartfelt words of "being a fan" of Calderón are fine, but the United States has to go beyond these niceties. Calderón is right to ask for more--U.S. demand for drugs remains unchanged, illegal guns and illegal gains flow south unabated. Estimates range widely, but tens of thousands of guns and tens of billions of dollars flow south each year. Though the Obama administration recently tried to boost the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives's ability to track gun sales (specifically multiple assault rifles--AK-47s, AR-15s, and the like), it was struck down by the new Republican-dominated Congress. Boehner will have to square his vocal support for Mexico and the Merida Initiative with his reflexive heeding of the National Rifle Association's demands.

There is a real possibility that U.S.-Mexico relations could fall into a downward spiral. That would be dire for both nations. Much more than security cooperation hangs in the balance. Mexico is the second largest U.S. export market, the largest source of U.S.-bound migrants, the ancestral home of over thirty million Mexican Americans, and an important partner in multilateral negotiations ranging from world financial markets to climate change. With economies, societies, and communities indelibly intertwined, whether it likes it or not, the United States' future is tied to Mexico's.

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