A Tough Calderón-Obama Summit

This week’s Washington meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderón and President Barack Obama took place amid strained relations between the two countries. Drug-related violence in Mexico has been increasing dramatically, with every year worse than the previous one since President Calderón came to power, totaling more than 34,000 dead. Kidnappings, extortions, and robberies have also increased, and the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have branched out to other rackets. Questions about the effectiveness of Mexican efforts against the DTOs have angered the Mexican president who feels that the United States is not doing enough to stop weapons and cash flows to Mexico or reduce demand.

Relations have also been strained by immigration issues, with the Obama administration struggling to halt a wave of anti-immigrations measures, such as in Arizona, which has generated outrage in Mexico. Prospects for any immigration reform that reduces deportation of undocumented workers or legalizes them and expands visas for Mexican workers are not high with the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives.

And the North American integration agenda is in a coma, so much so that the leaders of United States, Mexico, and Canada have not even thought it necessary to find a date for a their yearly trilateral meeting in 2010, preferring instead to meet with the U.S. president separately in 2011. The economic recession and continuing high unemployment do not provide an auspicious political setting in the United States for deeper economic integration with Mexico, even while high overseas transportation costs and significant wage increases in China make Mexico more competitive than it has been in a long time since NAFTA was signed.

The discussions in Washington seemed to have cleared the air somewhat and reduced some of the tension. President Obama expressed his admiration for the courage of President Calderón and the Mexican people in taking on the DTOs. President Obama also expressed determination to intensify U.S. efforts against smuggling of cash and guns from the United States to Mexico. President Calderón also walked away with a promise of further U.S. equipment transfers to Mexico – something that from the beginning he had more comfortable with than U.S. assistance for the institutional development of the law-enforcement and justice sector. And he and President Obama announced that U.S. and Mexican negotiators were close to reaching an agreement on allowing Mexican trucks into the United States, a policy to which the United States committed itself under NAFTA but subsequently failed to implement citing safety concerns. That agreement will need to be send to the U.S. Congress.

But it is the drug violence that drove much of the Obama-Calderón discussions in Washington. Spillovers to the United States have been limited: although kidnapping of undocumented Mexicans in the United States has increased, Mexican DTOs have not unleashed in the United States anything close to the violence they perpetrate in Mexico. But the fear of possible further escalation has not diminished. One such brazen escalation was the attack on U.S. ICE agents in Mexico two weeks ago, that resulted in the death of one and a serious injury to another. It was the first killing of a U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico since the kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. The participation of corrupt Mexican officials in Camarena’s killing plunged U.S.-Mexican relations and cooperation between law enforcement agencies on the two sides of the border into a long and deep crisis.

Unlike in 1985, the Mexican government with U.S. cooperation has acted swiftly and already arrested a commander from the notorious and very violent Zetas DTO as a prime suspect. In a communiqué, rival DTOs blamed the hit on the Zetas and put the finger on another commander. But much about the hit remains unclear, including where the attackers got their intelligence on the movement of U.S. agents and how premeditated the attack was and for what purpose. The high violence and turnover of foot soldiers and capos in Mexican DTOs also mean that command structures are quite loose and much unauthorized action takes place. Young and inexperienced sicarios exhibit high propensity toward violence. However, what is known and is highly disturbing is the fact that the hitmen proceeded with shooting the agents after seeing the car’s diplomatic plates and after the agents identified themselves as diplomats. Even if the attack was not strategically directed, the brazenness of the attackers and their lack of fear of law enforcement retaliation is worrisome.

U.S. law enforcement officials have called the attack a “game-changer” and advanced a major planned law enforcement operation in the United States that resulted in the arrest of more than 450 Mexican DTO operatives all over the United States. U.S. law enforcement officials have been explicit that advancing the arrests was meant as a deterrent strong signal to Mexican DTOs. There is good reason why police forces adopt strong measures in response to cop killings. If killing an officer is seen as easy and without great costs, law enforcement morale weakens and police forces become vulnerable to coercion and corruption. The weak Mexican police forces have been plagued by such problems for decades.

But U.S. law enforcement would be incorrect to demand merely more arrests by their Mexican counterparts in response to such attacks. An important cause of the drug violence in Mexico has been the way interdiction there has been carried out – focused on foot soldiers and high-value targets, with little focus on the middle layer of DTOs and little strategic analysis of what turf warfare raids on top narcos will provoke.

Yet without reductions in violence, Mexican public support for the struggle against the DTOs will continue to weaken, the reform of Mexican law enforcement and justice institutions will be hampered, and social programs to address crime will be undermined. It is no longer sufficient to claim that the violence can be discounted because most of it is narcos killing each other. Reducing violence while maintaining pressure on the DTOs and beefing up the deterrent and prosecution capacity of Mexican law enforcement and justice sectors needs to be an explicit goal of the strategy.