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Border Security, Drug Wars, Immigration — Obama's Trip To Mexico

Border Security, Drug Wars, Immigration — Obama's Trip To Mexico
GUEST:Shannon O'Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition focuses on the changing relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. President Obama makes a state visit to Mexico later this week. Observers say he'll find the new PeÒa Nieto administration extenuating economic policies over the security concerns that have dominated U.S./Mexico relations for the last few years. Earlier today, I spoke with doctor Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the council on foreign relations, author of the book "two nations indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the road ahead." What do you think are President Obama's goals in his meeting later this week with Mexican president PeÒa Nieto? O'NEIL: Well, there are two big issues he goes down to talk about. One are economics, the ties between Mexico and the United States on the economic side, and the other is security. So the real challenge here, the effort he needs to make is how do we improve the good things that are coming over the border, the commerce and the half trillion dollars worth of trade that goes back and forth? And how do we then diminish the bad things coming over the border, drugs or illegal immigrants or other types of contraband. CAVANAUGH: Mexico ended its open relationship with U.S. agencies in the fight against drug cartels what are the aspects of that open relationship? How close did Mexico and U.S. become in fighting the drug war under president CalderÛn? O'NEIL: What we're seeing is an evolution in U.S./Mexico security cooperation. That started under president CalderÛn. Before that, security ties were quite weak. There was very little money going back and forth, and there was very little contact between the two countries. In particular, between the many agencies that deal with security on both sides of the border. Under his presidency over that six year, we saw this really deepen. So there was almost a 10-fold increase in the amount of funds going from Mexico to the United States. And there was a back and forth between different agencies, whether the DEA, or FBI, or the Border Patrol, there's a lot of interaction with the counterparts there in Mexico. And what the new government has just announced is that they're going to change that a bit. So a lot of the contacts and the sharing information is not going to be between agents or even between agencies, but it's going to go through what they call the ministry of governance or the interior, but this is one of the more powerful ministries within Mexico, and it is going to be the centralizing force for this information which will then be passed to various agencies on the Mexican side. CAVANAUGH: Why do you think the new president of Mexico is doing this? O'NEIL: One reason is the Pri, the party that the president comes from, this is a trend within this party. This is sort of their default sense is to centralize power and information. It's something that they've done for decades, and so that's part of it. The other part is that under the CalderÛn administration, there were some problems. There were real struggles with the decentralization of information and of what different agencies were doing. So there is ray real tactical and operational reason to make it a bit more clear what all these agencies are doing to coordinate the effort in the role for security, but also in the fight against violence and drug trafficking generally. CAVANAUGH: Now, the PeÒa Nieto administration has been hesitant, reluctant to release figures on drug war killings the way Mexico had during the last administration. How do you see that? Is it a deliberate emphasis on deemphasizing the number of killings that there are in Mexico still going on because of drug war violence? O'NEIL: This administration, the PeÒa Nieto administration, has yet to really decide or release what their security strategy is going to be. So that's what all of this is part of. How are they going to lower the levels of violence, which is what they have been promising in their campaign. And that is the challenge for in government. How are you going to do that? And it's a hard thing to do. One, unlike the economic reforms that have taken over there, there's no real blueprint. There's no real consensus on what you do to reduce violence. And the things that there is some agreement on, things like you need to clean up the cops, strengthen the Court system, one, may take a long time to do, and two, these are things that the last government was doing actually. So in a political way, if you're trying to differentiate yourself as a new party, it's hard to say I'm going to continue the policies of the past. But I think that's what this government will end up doing, continuing many of the security policies of the past. CAVANAUGH: Moving on for a moment to immigration reform, there is many people, families, business, advocacy groups in San Diego hoping for movement on immigration reform legislation. Could this meeting between the presidents, Obama and PeÒa Nieto in Mexico help move that reform forward? O'NEIL: Well, it's interesting that Obama is choosing to take a trip to Mexico and then to central America right when immigration very much heating up, when the debates are heating up. It is an issue that the presidents will discuss, undoubtedly. I was down in Mexico about six weeks ago and met with the president and some of his ministers, and this was the first question to me and to the group I was with: What's happening on immigration reform? So it's top of mind for the Mexicans. But I also think the Mexican government realizes for the United States this is a domestic policy issue. And the solution or lack of solution will be whether there's a compromise made within the United States. So while they're watching it carefully, I don't think they're going to enter into the politics of this, which is obviously somewhat fraught in the United States. CAVANAUGH: I think it's interesting that it's the top priority of the officials in Mexico City, immigration reform in the U.S. why would that be? O'NEIL: Well, one, there's so many Mexicans living here in the United States. So there are some 11 million Mexicans here, probably 6 million of those without documents. But there are also so many families with mixed status. So there are five million U.S. citizens, kids mostly, with parents who one or both don't have documents. That affects whole families, whole communities. So if we could change our system, it would have good effects for Mexico on that side. But I also think this issue, it often clouds the larger relationship. Mexico wants to move forward on economic things, educational exchanges, security cooperation, and the like. And if we could take some of the rhetoric that's evolved in the immigration debate, it would be a lot easier to move forward on other issues that matter on both sides of the border. CAVANAUGH: Including the economy, the U.S./Mexico economy and how they share so much. Talk to us about the significant ties that the U.S. has to Mexico, especially the California economy. O'NEIL: Well, you see this day to day in San Diego, obviously but it's fascinating. It's about $500 billion a year. And what's more important is what's going back and forth. 40% on average is made in the United States by U.S. workers. And if you took China or Brazil or the European union, it's less than 4%. And Canada even, our other natural partner, is 25%. So what's interesting here is when you think about the reality today, come is one of global supply chains, Mexico is far and above a better partner for U.S. companies and U.S. workers than any other nation around. And you see that here in San Diego. So as we go forward, how do you encourage that? It's helping people on both sides of the border. CAVANAUGH: So what you're saying is that the things that are assembled in Mexico and perhaps are made in Mexico are 40% assembled in the United States before they get down there? O'NEIL: Exactly. And what it means is really what's moving across the boarder is not the finished good. It's not a car, it's not a washing machine. It's pieces and parts. So 1 piece will be made here, go to Mexico, put together with another piece there, then the larger pieces will be sent up here and combined, and there's a dance that's happening across the border. And in each stage, there's workers on both sides of the border that are participating but benefiting from it. CAVANAUGH: San Diego has tried for years to create more of a cross-border regional economy with Tijuana and Baja. Do you think those efforts can succeed? There's been so many fitful starts over the years. What does it take to have that kind of a cross-border region that so many officials in San Diego have said should really be our goal? O'NEIL: Not only can it succeed, I think it's vital that it does succeed for San Diego. And I read a study that dame out recently, and the delays at the border cost San Diego, this region, billions of dollars a year. And it's not just the actual billions of dollars, but it's also the investment that made come to this region if they felt the flows were faster, if it was more efficient. The place to start for your officials but also those in Washington and in Mexico City is how do you improve the border infrastructure? And as this trade between our two nations has quadrupled, the investment infrastructure has nowhere near kept up. So whether that's improving the physical infrastructure, expanding it through new ports or lanes, putting more and more staff at the boarder so all of the lanes are open for longer hours, to make that work. Or whether it's reducing the bureaucracy, the paperwork that happens on both sides of the border. All of that stuff would make it easier for companies to work back and forth and would benefit places like San Diego enormously. CAVANAUGH: San Diego's mayor, Bob Filner, is proposing that we join with Tijuana to make a bid for the 2024 Olympics. What could an effort like that do to increase cross-border cooperation? O'NEIL: Well, if it came to fruition, it would be a huge investment in infrastructure to get people back and forth, to build the stadiums and the places where events would be held. So that would be a huge investment into San Diego, creating thousands and thousands of jobs. But probably as important is the symbolic side of it, and the fact that Mexico and the United States would be working together, they see themselves joined together here in a sporting event, one of the big evaluate in the world. But that carries over more broadly into the economy, the society, and the community more broadly. It has both of those benefits and would be great for both cities, of course. CAVANAUGH: There are still warnings in effect by the U.S. State Department regarding travel in certain areas of Mexico, including areas in Baja at night. They say you really have to watch out. This hampers cross-border travel. How long do you think until more Americans feel it's safe to travel into Mexico? O'NEIL: Mexico's biggest challenge today I would say is security and safety in particular parts of the country. And while so many things are moving in the right direction, the economy is transforming in good ways, the middle class is growing, now just over half of the population, Mexico is now a competitive democracy, all good things. On the security side, we've seen a continued deterioration. So if Mexico can get this under control, then these good things will prosper. If they don't, then it will hold our neighbor back, and because of the close ties between the United States and Mexico will also hold us back as well. CAVANAUGH: Do you think there are political reasons that there are voices that warn us constantly about Mexico in one way or another that this is a problem for the United States? This nation to our south is always sort of characterized as a problem? O'NEIL: The security challenges are real. So when the State Department is looking at the information they have, they want to protect U.S. citizens. And they're more cautious for that reason. But what I do think happens in the United States, we are often privy throughout the media and elsewhere to just one of the realities in Mexico. We're less aware of all these other realities that are happening in Mexico, and many of them good ones. And while we need to take into consideration the serious ones, the threat and the problems, we also should be thinking about the other ones. And that will help us be a partner to Mexico and all these other areas. CAVANAUGH: You've written that we do need to start to see Mexico as a partner that our future depends on it. O'NEIL: Our economies, our societies, our communities, our environments, we're all linked. And so how Mexico does will affect the United States. We're going to rise and fall together. So it's better to see Mexico as a partner than wall ourselves off and view Mexico as a problem. Then we'll have no say, no ability to work together for our mutual future. CAVANAUGH: Is this an idea that's really gaining traction among leaders and scholars in Washington? For years all we've heard is about walling off Mexico, building a stronger border fence, and so forth. That's even part of the immigration reform package. Are people getting the message about this? O'NEIL: I think there's some people that are thinking seriously about it. But as you know, being here in San Diego where you're actually on the border, there's a way to get a sense of what's happening here and across the borders other than just what they read in the newspapers.

President Obama heads to Mexico later this week. It's his first since the country elected its new president. Economics, border security, drug wars and immigration are key topics expected to be part of the conversation between Obama and President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Observers say he'll find the new Pena Nieto administration accentuating economic policies over the security concerns that have dominated US-Mexico relations for the last few years.

In a way, that mirrors the priorities of Tijuana's Mayor Carlos Bustamante focusing on economic development in Baja after years battling drug cartel violence. San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and Bustamante are attempting to forge closer ties between the cities, even going so far as to suggest a joint bid to host the 2024 Olympic games.


"The US needs to start seeing Mexico as a partner instead of a problem. Our future depends on it," said Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.


-Tequila Talk With Dr. Shannon O'Neil

Tuesday, April 30, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Institute of the Americas - UCSD Campus, 10111 North Torrey Pines Road La Jolla, CA 92037,

-Book Signing U.S. Mexico Chamber of Commerce California Regional Chapter

Tuesday, April 30, 12:00 p.m.

Duane Morris LLP

Suite 2900 750 B Street

San Diego, CA 9210

-Book Signing Institute of the Americas-Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego

Tuesday, April 30, 6:00 p.m.

Institute of the Americas, Weaver Room

10111 North Torrey Pines Road

La Jolla, CA 92037

O'Neil, author of the book Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and The Road Ahead, told KPBS there are many ties that bind both countries.

She said throughout the past three decades, there have been many changes in Mexico that are "overshadowed by the drug war."

She points to investments made in the country.

"The US exports to Mexico are double those to China, and only second to Canada," she said.