Confronting a security threat on the America’s doorstep, President Barack Obama arrived Thursday in Mexico for a swift diplomatic mission to show solidarity on drugs and guns with a troubled neighbor — and to prove the U.S. is serious about the battle against trafficking.
After a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama planned to announce he would support an inter-American weapons treaty meant to take on the bloody drug trade. Officials described the plan on the condition of anonymity so they wouldn’t pre-empt the announcement.
The regional treaty, adopted by the Organization of American States, was signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1997 but never ratified by the U.S. Senate. Officials said Obama would push lawmakers to act on it — an opening gesture for meetings that also would include discussion of the economic crisis and possibly clean energy.
Among the other touchy points are disagreement over a lapsed U.S. assault weapons ban, a standoff over cross-border trucking, and immigration.
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama also would tell Mexican officials that he has asked Congress to provide money for Black Hawk helicopters to help Mexico in its drug war.
The escalating drug fight in Mexico is spilling into the United States, and confronting Obama with an international crisis much closer than North Korea or Afghanistan. Mexico is the main hub for cocaine and other drugs entering the U.S., and the United States is the primary source of guns used in Mexico’s drug-related killings.
Calderon’s aggressive stand against drug cartels has won him the aid of the United States and the prominent political backing of Obama — never as evident as on Thursday, when the new president was to stand with Calderon in Mexico’s capital city.
Interviewed Wednesday by CNN en Espanol, Obama said Calderon was doing a “heroic job” in his battle with the cartels.
As for the U.S. role, Obama said, “We are going to be dealing not only with drug interdiction coming north, but also working on helping to curb the flow of cash and guns going south.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said consultations with Mexico are “not about pointing fingers, it’s about solving a problem: What can we do to prevent the flow of guns and cash south that fuel these cartels?”
Obama’s overnight Mexican stop came on the way to the Summit of the Americas in the two-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, where he hopes to set a new tone for relations with Latin America.
“We will renew and sustain a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security,” he wrote in an Op-ed column printed in a dozen newspapers throughout the region.
In the past, Obama said, America has been “too easily distracted by other priorities” while leaders throughout the Americas have been “mired in the old debates of the past.”
More than 10,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence since Calderon’s stepped-up effort against the cartels began in 2006. The State Department says contract killings and kidnappings on U.S. soil, carried out by Mexican drug cartels, are on the rise as well.
A U.S. military report just five months ago raised the specter of Mexico collapsing into a failed state with its government under siege. It named only one other country in such a worst-case scenario: Pakistan. The assertion incensed Mexican officials; Obama’s team disavowed it.
Indeed, the Obama administration has gone the other direction, showering attention on Mexico.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Mexico City that the U.S. shared responsibility for the drug war. She said America’s “insatiable demand” for illegal drugs fueled the trade and that the U.S. had an “inability” to stop weapons from being smuggled south.
Obama has dispatched hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, to the Southwest to help Mexico fight drug cartels. He sent Congress a war-spending request that made room for $350 million for security along the U.S.-Mexico border. He added three Mexican organizations to a list of suspected international drug kingpins. He dispatched three Cabinet secretaries to Mexico. And he just named a “border czar.”
The Justice Department says such Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.
The White House is vowing more enforcement of gun laws. But it is not pursuing a promise Obama made as a candidate: a ban on assault-style weapons.
That ban on military-style guns became law during the Clinton administration in 1994 but expired under the Bush administration in 2004. When Attorney General Eric Holder raised the idea of reinstating the ban this year, opposition from Democrats and Republicans emerged quickly.
Reopening the debate on gun rights is apparently a fight the White House does not want to take on right now.
“I think that there are other priorities that the president has,” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week.
Mexican leaders, though, say the ban saved lives.
The swooning economy, blamed largely on failures inside the United States, has taken a huge toll on Mexico. About 80 percent of Mexico’s exports — now in decline — go to the United States.
Obama and Calderon are likely to tout the value of that trade, but a spat between their countries remains unresolved. Mexico has raised tariffs on almost 90 American products, a retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel access to Mexican truckers on U.S. highways despite the terms of a free trade agreement.
On immigration, Obama is expected to make clear he is committed to reforms. The effort is likely to start this year but won’t move to the top of his agenda.
“It’s important because of the human costs,” Obama said in the CNN en Espanol interview. “It’s something that we need to solve.”