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Tough Issues On The Table During Calderon's Visit

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama stand for their countries' national anthems during a welcoming ceremony Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama stand for their countries' national anthems during a welcoming ceremony Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House.

President Obama received Mexican President Felipe Calderon with all the pomp of a state visit, but in private, the two leaders faced some of the thorniest issues between their countries: immigration, drug violence and trade.

At a joint news conference, Obama pointed to what he called the shared "promise and perils" of being neighbors in an interconnected world. He said trade and tourism have brought jobs and prosperity to both peoples.

"When a flu spreads or an earthquake strikes or cartels threaten innocent people, it affects lives on both sides of our common border," Obama told reporters at the White House.


Obama Reaffirms Support For Drug War

The war against Mexico's drug cartels is a key domestic issue for Calderon. Drug gang violence has left nearly 23,000 people dead in Mexico since his government began its offensive against traffickers in December of 2006.

"This is the signature issue of his presidency, and he has started to see a slipping of popular support for it," said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He is really seeking explicit approval from the U.S. for what he's done so far."

Pablo Piccato, a specialist in Mexican history at Columbia University, said the U.S. should acknowledge that guns and money from north of the border are helping to fuel the drug violence. "I think there is an increasing sense in Mexico that they are fighting a war on behalf of the U.S. at a very high cost to Mexico."

Obama reaffirmed U.S. backing for the effort in similar terms. "As your partner, we'll give you the support you need to prevail," he told Calderon. "Through increased law enforcement on our side of the border, we're putting unprecedented pressure on those who traffic in guns, money and people."


He also assured Calderon that the U.S. is "working to stem the southbound flow of American guns and money, which is why, for the first time, we are now screening 100 percent of southbound rail cargo."

The U.S. already has shown support for the drug war by providing training and equipment for the Mexican military under the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative, but some analysts say the program needs to distribute aid faster and smarter.

"One thing that has to be done is to accelerate some of the resources under the Merida Initiative," said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Some of those resources, he said, should be redirected toward institution building in Mexico, "strengthening the police, because the real issue is corruption, and you need to do a lot of institution building to overcome that."

Leaders Critical Of Arizona Law

Immigration is high on the agenda for both leaders. Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, is facing tough fights in Mexico's gubernatorial elections in July and wants to project an image of strength. The long-running debate on the issue has been refueled by a controversial Arizona law that allows local police to demand proof of immigration status and detain people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.

"Calderon needs to be seen in Mexico as being quite tough on the immigration issue," O'Neil said.

At the news conference, Calderon reiterated his opposition to the Arizona law, calling it "unfair" and "discriminatory."

Obama said the Arizona law "has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion" and that it "expresses some of the frustrations that the American people have had in not fixing a broken immigration system." Obama said he expects to receive a final report soon from the Justice Department, which has been reviewing the law.

Mexican Trucking Conflict Unresolved

Another priority for Calderon is trade. Mexico charges that the U.S. is violating the North American Free Trade Agreement by blocking access to Mexican trucks.

NAFTA called for Mexican truckers to have access to U.S. highways by 2000, but the plan met with strong opposition from the Teamsters Union, which argues that Mexican trucks don't meet U.S. safety standards and that they are a potential security threat in an age of terrorism.

There was a pilot program that started in 2007 to allow drivers licensed in Mexico to drive tractor-trailers and buses across the border, but Congress cut funding for it last year. Mexico responded by imposing tariffs on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. goods.

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