President Calderón’s Last Opportunity

As Mexico’s appalling murder rate rises past 3,000 in 2010 so far, President Calderón’s “war on drugs” has yet to bring peace and stability to his country. Calderón may have a last chance to shape his legacy during his meetings in Washington this week. With the Mexican drug cartels proving difficult to defeat, Mexican citizens are left to wonder if their President’s chosen strategy is the best way to go forward. In Ciudad Juárez only, Calderón has deployed 10,000 army troops and federal police in an attempt to subdue the violence that is killing an average of six victims a day in this Mexican border city.

The first problem is that the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.-Mexican pact to fight drug trafficking and drug-related violence, is not doing for Mexico what Plan Colombia did for Colombia. One factor is that the funds established for this effort do not meet the growing equipment and training needs of Mexican law enforcement. In addition, the Mérida Initiative struggles against several sovereignty issues: Mexico needs more equipment and on-site training from the American military but is unwilling to ask for that assistance. Also, Mexico does not seem willing to yield to any changes in its current military court system, which is an important issue for many groups in Washington.

Adding to this array of obstacles, a 2004 U.S. decision to decriminalize cross-border arms trade has indirectly provided more power to the Mexican drug cartels. Calderón needs to go back home with some commitment from the Obama administration to change the arms trade policy. Ideally, the U.S. should ratify the U.N. protocol against the illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms. A cooperative security plan that addresses this issue may be the most effective option at this juncture.

In addition to a new plan for addressing the drug war, Calderón must press President Obama for progress on immigration reform. Arizona’s SB1070 provides an opportunity for him to put pressure on the need to grant temporary work permits to a larger number of Mexican citizens. American employers would no longer have the incentives to hire undocumented workers, and immigrants would be able to work under U.S. rules and regulations. In the meantime, Mexico should let Arizonians know that, as a result of the new anti-immigrant policy, it is no longer business as usual. Trade routes should favor other states and border crossings.

On immigration, Calderón should urge the United States to learn from Brazil’s recent reform plan, where undocumented foreigners that entered Brazil illegally were given 180 days to request temporary residency, followed by the expedition of an identity document with a validity of two years. Up to 300,000 undocumented Bolivians living in Brazil benefited from the measure.

In order to deal with both drugs and illegal migration, Mexico needs to revamp its economy. Overall, average growth in Mexico has been appallingly low. During the last two decades, only in 1997 and 2000 output expanded by more than 4 percent, which has been Latin America’s average growth. With a reinvigorated economy, Mexico would be well suited to provide its citizens with sustainable employment opportunities. Allowing Mexican truck drivers to ferry their cargo within the United States is important but will not do the trick. What Mexico needs is a larger market, not just in the United States, but in the entire hemisphere. Weaving together all the free trade agreements that the U.S. has signed from Chile to Canada into a single common market will put Mexico’s manufactured goods in an ideal position to compete with Brazil and restore some of its regional influence.

Only by taking these measures can President Calderón begin to make a dent in his nation’s violent and volatile present, and build a more stable and prosperous future. His words and actions over the course of his Washington visit will speak volumes and could turn the tide in Mexico.