Mexican, U.S. Presidents Have Much To Discuss

This week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon will be the guest of honor at President Obama's second state dinner. The two presidents will have much to discuss — including a bloody drug war that has killed thousands along the U.S.-Mexico border. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with security analyst Fred Burton and Mexico City-based political science professor Denise Dresser.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, dramatic political protest on the streets of Bangkok. We'll talk about what's going on there and about the Thai community here.

But, first, we look at tomorrow's visit by Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, to the White House. In addition to a meeting with President Obama, Calderon will address a joint session of Congress and later be the guest of honor at a state dinner - only the second state dinner of the Obama presidency.

But all the pomp and circumstance can't hide the fact of the ongoing drug war in Mexico. More than 22,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Calderon took office in late 2006. Calderon's also been railing against the new anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona.

For more on the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, I'm joined by Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and security at STRATFOR, a company that offers security, research and intelligence. He joins us from Austin, Texas. We also have with us Denise Dresser, professor of political science at Mexico City's Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. FRED BURTON (Vice President of Counterterrorism and Security, STRATFOR): Thank you for having me.

Professor DENISE DRESSER (Political Science, Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico): Thank you very much for the invitation.

KEYES: Fred, let me start with you and let's talk about the kidnapping of the former presidential candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos. Put this in context for us. What happened, first of all?

Mr. BURTON: In looking at the kidnappings that are occurring in Mexico, this is a continuation of the pattern that doesn't appear to be slowing down. And I think this is the big challenge for Calderon. And no doubt he's going to be asked questions in Washington concerning what is he doing to stem this violence?

It appears that the body count has not slowed down. We've had nothing but an increase in abductions in the past two to three years. And from a political perspective I see this as his biggest challenge from the domestic perspective.

KEYES: Has anyone claimed responsibility for this kidnapping? Do we know who or even if he has been kidnapped?

Mr. BURTON: It appears at this stage that you have a list of suspects that range from a domestic guerilla group to cartel bosses to average criminals. And that's part of the problem when you're looking at the abductions in Mexico. There is tremendous intelligence gaps into who's behind these in any given time. A man like this would have many, many enemies and also many, many favors that are owed to a lot of different people.

KEYES: But he's a bit of a higher profile than the usual victims of this sort of thing. Is it kind of a sea change in what's been happening there?

Mr. BURTON: I wouldn't call this a sea change. Again, when you start looking at the abduction aspect that is taking place, much like the Felix Batista kidnapping, who was the U.S. citizen and hostage negotiator, the scope of the victims inside of Mexico does not surprise us at all.

KEYES: Professor Dresser, how has the ruling political class in Mexico and the public been reacting to this case?

Prof. DRESSER: I think there is a widespread sense of shock because although it's not a watershed, it does perhaps mark a defining moment in terms of the escalation of violence and kidnapping to the elite, which had largely remained immune. And so, many are beginning to speak of the Colombianization of Mexico insofar as either it's drug traffickers or organized criminals are reaching beyond simply fighting amongst themselves and targeting ordinary citizens and now have targeted someone who is very much an emblematic member of Mexico's ruling class.

KEYES: So this must increase the level of fear for the general public there as well.

Prof. DRESSER: Well, there's also a sense that this kidnapping is being treated differently than that of ordinary citizens. The Mexican state is devoting its resources. The military, the police, everyone has been brought in to try and investigate what has happened to Diego Fernandez de Cevallos in a way that underscores that this is not the case in many situations where people are randomly taken off the streets for express kidnappings or other forms of violence in Mexico that are widespread.

And yet the attention of local or state authorities has never been as large as it is in the case of someone who is very prominent. And it's also very bad timing for President Calderon, because as you mentioned, he's visiting Washington. And I think his expectation was that he would go and receive a pat on the back and have validation for his strategy of taking on drug cartels in Mexico. He's going to spend a lot of time explaining exactly what's going on with the Fernandez de Cevallos case.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Mexico President Felipe Calderon's visit this week to Washington, D.C. I'm joined by counterterrorism expert Fred Burton and political science professor Denise Dresser.

Fred, can President Calderon make the case that his government is effectively dealing with the drug violence when so many are dying and disappearing?

Mr. BURTON: I don't think so. I think when you look at this in context with just the escalation of violence, again, over the past two to three years, the actual abduction rates are increasing, the body count directly related to the cartel violence is increasing. You have cities like Juarez that are completely under siege and businesses are fleeing.

And there's also been other high profile kidnappings and assassinations to include in Mexico City, most notably, the Edgar Millan case where he was a very senior police intelligence official and liaison to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And you couple this with the tax on the foreign service national employees at the U.S. consulate in Juarez, you have a situation that is spiraling out of control. When you can't protect the official diplomats in country, that is a strong signal that no one is safe. So, again, I wouldn't be surprised to see additional kidnappings like this occur.

KEYES: Professor, very briefly, do people in Mexico think the drug war is being won?

Prof. DRESSER: No, the polls reveal that skepticism is on the rise. And when Hillary Clinton and a high level delegation of American officials came to Mexico a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be a growing recognition that perhaps a shift in strategy is required. That it's not enough to simply gamble on the militarization of Mexico. That much more needs to be done in terms of establishing an effective rule of law, something that in Mexico is precarious, uneven and in some cases I would say nonexistent.

I think Mexico's problem is largely related to the nonexistence of the rule of law to the degree in which official institutions have been penetrated by criminal organizations. And the way in which the Mexican state has become infiltrated by the very forces that it seeks to combat. So if we don't root out high level corruption, I think this is a war that cannot and will not be won.

KEYES: Professor, what does President Calderon need to achieve during his visit here?

Prof. DRESSER: Well, I think that he will speak forcefully against the law that was approved in Arizona, but he will...

KEYES: You're talking about the anti-illegal immigration law, I should say, in Arizona.

Prof. DRESSER: Yes. For domestic purposes, he will allude to that. And yet at the same time I think he's also going to call for a greater American collaboration because there's a perception here that Mexico is fighting this war alone, that even though the United States is the source of demand for most of these drugs, that the U.S. is not pulling enough of its own weight. And that too much has been left for Mexico to do alone.

KEYES: Let me jump in, professor, and ask Fred what the U.S. government needs to get out of this visit, President Calderon's visit here.

Mr. BURTON: I think when you look at this in a context from an intelligence perspective, you're stymied with the aspect of your high levels of corruption and your inability to share actionable intelligence with the Mexican government without it being compromised. I also think that there's a disconnect between Washington's perception of the spillover violence into the United States and what the states are dealing with at a localized level. It appears that Washington doesn't understand the spillover violence into the United States, especially into states like Texas.

KEYES: Do you think, Fred, that the violence is going to get worse in Mexico?

Mr. BURTON: I think that if you look at it from a trending perspective it appears to not be slowing down at all. We see it escalating over the next 18 months, therefore I think that if you look at it in a context, the strategic view is not very good.

KEYES: Professor, let me ask you the same question briefly.

Prof. DRESSER: I think the perception here is that Felipe Calderon is not in control of the situation. And his party is being penalized at the polls for that. This is also affecting his standing and that of his party. So I think you're also going to see a very strong political impact in forthcoming elections, including a presidential election in three years.

KEYES: What has not been discussed about this situation between these two governments so far and do you think it'll come up during the visit?

Prof. DRESSER: Well, I think the issue of high level corruption in Mexico, President Calderon is always applauded in Washington for taking on drug cartels. But the cartels thrive on the fact that there's so much collusion and protection that is emanating from state governors, from municipal authorities. And I think until Mexico is willing to address that issue, we will just be drawing lines in the sand.

I think that corruption has to be placed at the forefront of this discussion, along with other issues that have to do with growth and development. I mean, Mexico is a fertile terrain for organized crime and violence and drug trafficking because it's a country that has a, you know, a permanent subclass of 20 million people who live on less than $2 a day. Unless we are able to address the issue of Mexico's development in the long term, I think that drugs will continue to be a flourishing trade in Mexico for many.

KEYES: Fred, a final question: For those who don't live in the border state, why is the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico so important?

Mr. BURTON: From the demographics aspect, the scope of trade back and forth, as well as the strong family connections - in essence, families are translating back and forth every day.

KEYES: Fred Burton is vice president of counterterrorism and security at STRATFOR in Austin. And Denise Dresser is professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. Thank you both for joining us.

Prof. DRESSER: Thank you very much.

Mr. BURTON: Thank you for having me.

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