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The Message from Calderón in the U.S.

Interviewee: Shannon K. O'Neil, Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
May 18, 2010

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On his state visit to Washington May 19-20, Mexican President Felipe Calderón will call attention to his country's new hard line against escalating drug-gang violence that has triggered cross-border concerns. But the issue of immigration could generate heat because of the new Arizona law on illegal immigrants and the controversy it has aroused within both Mexico and the United States, says CFR Fellow Shannon O'Neil. She says while Calderón is likely to address immigration reform in his May 20 speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, his focus will be on U.S. backing for his aggressive approach to dealing with drug gangs. "He wants explicit U.S. support for his programs, even as these are beginning to shift (with U.S. assistance) toward a more comprehensive approach toward the problems of narco-violence," she says.

President Felipe Calderón has condemned Arizona's new crackdown on illegal immigrants and said it has damaged bilateral relations. Is this likely to figure heavily in his address to Congress on May 20?

President Calderón almost has to mention the Arizona law in his address to Congress; it is a critical issue not just for bilateral relations with the United States but within Mexico's domestic politics. Mexico is heading into gubernatorial and other elections in July, in many towns and in states along the border, so a strong message back to Mexico is crucial for the president and his party.

At the same time that Calderón is appealing to his home audience with a tough message about the Arizona law, he has to be careful about the signals he sends within the United States. Immigration reform is seen solely as a domestic issue in the United States--and a heavily politicized one at that. Too strong a statement by Calderón could backfire, hurting the possibilities of comprehensive immigration reform.

He is also expected to appeal in that address for cooperation in combating Mexico's cartels. Discuss the gravity of the cartel-related violence, which some have called "narco-terror."

At the same time that Calderón is appealing to his home audience with a tough message about the Arizona law, he has to be careful about the signals he sends within the United States. Too strong a statement could backfire, hurting the possibilities of comprehensive immigration reform.

Violence has continued increasing in Mexico over the last three years, even as the Calderón government has brought out some forty thousand troops and increased the size of the federal police force (responsible for crimes such as drug trafficking). Drug-related murders reached nearly four thousand during the first four months of 2010, making them the bloodiest yet during Calderón's term. Fighting the drug cartels has been the signature issue of Calderón's government, but one where the tide of public opinion is now turning against him. Calderón comes to Washington asking for recognition for the militarized path he has chosen. He wants explicit U.S. support for his programs, even as these are beginning to shift (with U.S. assistance) toward a more comprehensive approach toward the problems of narco-violence.

How would you rate progress in the Merida Initiative?

The Merida Initiative represents a real advancement in U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. It has provided funds--some $1.3 billion over three years--to Mexico as well as substantial cooperation and coordination in the fight against drug trafficking organizations that span borders.

In recent months, the Obama administration, along with Calderón's team, has revamped Merida. After two years of funding heavily weighted toward military and police equipment, future U.S. security cooperation will focus much more on law enforcement and judicial institution-building, as well as begin to address the underlying socioeconomic factors that lead many of Mexico's youth into illicit trades. This is a substantial shift, but one that is essential for Mexico to strengthen its rule of law and, in the long term, reduce today's levels of violence and crime.

In addition to helping with arms flows across the border, can Washington be of help in reforming Mexico's police, often cited as a central problem in counternarcotics?

Washington has already been working with Mexico on helping reform its police force, starting with the recently formed federal police. The United States has provided funds for equipment, as well as for training of the thirty thousand-plus strong (and growing) force. The next phase of Merida will increase this type of assistance, extending beyond the federal level to reach state and even some municipal forces.

Mexico is also concerned with U.S.-imposed limits on Mexican trucking on U.S. highways, a dispute which last year led to retaliatory Mexican tariffs against U.S. goods. Is there likely to be progress on that issue during his visit to Washington?

[F]uture U.S. security cooperation will focus much more on law enforcement and judicial institution-building, as well as begin to address the underlying socioeconomic factors that lead many of Mexico's youth into illicit trades.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood has repeatedly said that a new proposal on trucking that would bring the United States in line with its NAFTA obligations is in the works and will be released "very soon." It is possible that there will be some progress made in time for Calderón's visit, as it is important not just to Mexico but to many U.S. states whose exports have been hurt by the retaliatory tariffs.

It is important that the U.S. and Mexico make progress not only on trucking, but also that they begin to build a more competitive North America. Mexico is the second-largest destination for U.S. exports today, and it is a growing market. If the United States hopes to boost its own economic growth through exports (as President Obama promised to do in his State of the Union address), Mexico will be a crucial market and participant in that growth. Facilitating cross-border commerce by lowering transportation costs will be essential for both economies to grow.

What would be a signal that this visit from Calderón was successful?

If the outcome of Calderón's time in DC reinforces ongoing U.S.-Mexico cooperation across many areas--including security, trade, economic growth, climate change--and avoids getting bogged down in contentious debates surrounding immigration, then this trip will be a success for President Calderón.

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