Obama Faces A Complex Relationship With Mexico

President Obama's brief visit to Mexico on Thursday is aimed at broadening the U.S. relationship with its southern neighbor, but the trip is being dominated by one key issue: the drug trade and the violence surrounding it.

Mexican leader Felipe Calderon has staked his presidency on crushing drug cartels, deploying some 45,000 troops to fight them. More than 10,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence over the past three years.

Calderon is expected to ask Obama to make good on promises of American aid. Calderon wants money for crime-fighting and a promise that the U.S. will do more to curb drug demand at home and the export of guns to the Mexican gangs.

Mexicans also want the American president to show respect for and confidence in their country in order to counter recent statements that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a "failed state."

They want the administration to take action on immigration issues and to resolve what they say are violations of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

A History Of Neglect

"If there's been any constant in U.S. relations with Mexico, it's been protracted neglect," says Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The presidents usually have a scripted photo op with each other ... but the way they've solved major problems [such as immigration] has been to ignore them."

Birns says the president's task will be to rehabilitate "a relationship that's been terribly wounded by neglect and abuse — by the U.S. patronizing Mexico."

"Not that Mexico didn't do something to deserve it," Birns adds. "Mexico's vital institutions need to be reformatted to deal with corruption, especially in the judiciary."

Birns says the drug war has made it clear that something dramatic needs to be done. "A massive infusion of money," he says. "This is precisely what the U.S. is not prepared to do."

One big complaint of Mexican officials is that the United States hasn't come through with aid it promised last summer under a program called the Merida Initiative. The measure was to provide $1.4 billion to Mexico and Latin America over the next three years to help fight the drug cartels.

It was to include costly equipment, such as helicopters, reconnaissance planes and security scanners for use at border crossings, but so far, that equipment hasn't been delivered.

That lack of equipment, Mexican officials say, is hampering their efforts to stop drugs flowing north across the border and military-style guns flowing south to the drug gangs.

"The issue of gun control on the border is very important," says Pablo Piccato, director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University. "Mexico insists that if the U.S. just enforces the laws that are already on the books, it would help keep guns and ammunition from the criminals."

Mexico: At Risk Of Becoming A Failed State?

Piccato says recent U.S. news reports that Mexico was in danger of becoming a failed state also damaged the two countries' relationship. He says the perception of violence and chaos hurt American tourism to Mexico and embarrassed the government.

The "failed state" discussion got wide play in U.S. media late last year after a report from the U.S. Joint Forces Command put Mexico on the same stability level as Pakistan.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former U.S. drug czar, issued a memo around the same time saying that Mexico was "fighting for survival against narco-terrorism."

The reports raised enough alarm that U.S. officials such as Sen. John Kerry felt obliged to rebut the notion. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Mexico "a functional democracy with a vibrant and open economy."

Birns says one reason for the "failed state" discussion is to reduce Mexico's leverage in talks on issues such as oil. "Japan, China, India and other countries are wooing Mexico for its energy," Birns says, "and the U.S. is very apprehensive because it wants a guaranteed energy source."

Trade And Immigration Are Ongoing Irritants

Another area where Mexico could use leverage is trade. Mexicans say the U.S is violating NAFTA by banning the free movement of Mexican trucks into the United States. Last month, Congress shut down a demonstration program that allowed Mexican long-haul truckers to operate in the U.S., saying that many of the Mexican companies failed to meet U.S. safety standards.

Mexico retaliated by imposing $2.4 billion worth of tariffs on American goods, ranging from foodstuffs to appliances, making it almost impossible for them to compete in the Mexican market. The tariffs targeted products made in 40 states, in hopes that a lot of U.S. lawmakers would get pressure from their constituents.

Piccato notes that one thing the Mexican government hasn't been vocal about lately is immigration reform. There are increasing signs that the economic downturn is making it harder for illegal immigrants to find work in the United States. One measure, says Piccato, is that remittances from workers in the U.S. to their relatives in Mexico have fallen.

Some illegal immigrants may be returning home, he says, "but I don't think the issue will go away completely, because things in Mexico are not very good, either."

All these issues will probably come up in some form during the discussions between Obama and Calderon, but Birns says the question is whether they'll be the start of a new and lasting engagement.

"There's a long-standing tradition of [U.S. and Mexican leaders] ignoring these issues," he says, "of just calling each other friends and exchanging gifts, like boots and hats."

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