Obama's Mexico Standoff: Calderon Visits Washington Amid Unrest

As Mexico's president visits Washington, tensions are flaring south of the border over drug violence and the economy—and much of the rage is directed at the U.S. John M. Ackerman on how Obama can defuse the crisis.

Left to right: Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama. (Photo: Alexandre Meneghini / AP Photo; J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

Political stability is at risk not only in the Middle East, but also south of the U.S. border. The Mexican people are getting increasingly frustrated with the failure of President Felipe Calderón to win the “ drug war” and resolve their basic needs. They could soon take matters into their own hands. When Calderón visits Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner should use the opportunity to announce concrete new measures in support of the Mexican people. Otherwise, the emerging discontent could lead to a repudiation not just of Calderón but also of the entire U.S. political establishment.

Surprisingly, Mexico is one of the most “anti-American” countries in the world. A recent global survey conducted by the BBC revealed that only 13 percent of the population has a “mainly positive” view of the U.S.’s worldwide influence, while 49 percent has a “mainly negative” one. Of the 28 countries surveyed, only Pakistan and Turkey have stronger anti-American sentiment. Both the Egyptians and the Chinese are far more positive than the Mexicans.

To an extent, these perceptions are linked to history and geography. Mexico lost a third of its territory to the U.S. during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. And U.S. troops occupied Mexican territory at two crucial moments during the Mexican revolution of 1910-17.

But the negative views of the U.S. derive principally from what’s happening now. Hundreds of migrants die trying to cross the border each year. Incidents of U.S. border agents shooting or killing Mexicans, often for no apparent reason, are not uncommon. The number of deportations from the U.S. has risen sharply in recent years, and the Obama administration has made absolutely no progress on immigration reform.

The solution does not lie in an escalation of the drug war but in concrete measures that would demonstrate U.S. willingness to help reduce violence and resolve social ills.

The Mexican population is also acutely aware that the consumption of illegal drugs and the sale of assault weapons in the U.S. are among the chief causes of the 35,000 execution-type murders in Mexico over the past four years, 15,000 in 2010 alone. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Mexican cartels take in between $19 billion and $29 billion a year from the U.S. More than 60,000 weapons seized by Mexican authorities since 2006 have been traced back to the U.S. The gun used to kill U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico two weeks ago was imported from Texas.

The double standard that the U.S. often applies to Mexico does not help perceptions. While the U.S. encourages the deployment of the Mexican military in patrolling streets, setting up checkpoints, and combating crime—a move that has led to skyrocketing human-rights violations—such a use of uniformed soldiers would never be tolerated in the States. Congress’ acceptance of basic reporting requirements for the purchase of handguns, often used in crimes in the U.S., but recent moves to reject similar requirements for assault weapons, principally used in crimes in Mexico, is another obvious contradiction.

But the most glaring contrast is in the “drug war” itself. North of the border, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has declared an end to the “war” analogy in order to focus on prevention, and the attorney general’s office treats prosecuting the importation and distribution of marijuana as low priority so as to concentrate on more lethal drugs. But to the south, thanks to U.S. pressure, the war mentality is in full tilt. Mexican authorities use their scarce resources to wage a military battle over the heavily traveled marijuana transit routes—this drug makes up approximately 60 percent of the income for Mexican cartels and is legally consumed for medical purposes in a dozen U.S. states—instead of focusing on prevention and combating more serious crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, and human trafficking. The result has been the incredible spike in killings, principally of people in their twenties and thirties, as the cartels and the government fight over limited turf.

Obama and Boehner must act quickly to prevent a new flare-up close to home. Calderón’s approval ratings are in freefall. Two-thirds of the Mexican population today is convinced that their president’s battle against the cartels has failed. In addition, the economic crisis and an increase in food prices have aggravated poverty and inequality; Almost 50 million Mexicans are now poor, with approximately 20 million of these in extreme poverty. The net wealth of the 10 richest people in Mexico represents 10 percent of GDP, and the top 10 percent of the population earns over 25 times more than the poorest 10 percent.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s population of disaffected youth is growing. Official statistics report more than 7 million people between the ages of 12 and 29 who neither study nor have a job—the “neither-nor” generation. Today, those between 20 and 40 years old make up more than a third of the Mexican population. University enrollment has increased but has not kept up with demand, leaving many frustrated youth in the streets. The result is a potentially explosive situation as the younger generation, often with access to social media, searches for new ways to bring about political and social change. The emerging “No More Blood!” movement, led by journalists and students, may be the beginning of a widespread repudiation of the “drug war” and the role of the U.S. in it.

The central issue in Mexico is not “insurgency” or “terrorism” but genuine social discontent. The solution therefore does not lie in an escalation of the “war,” but in concrete measures that would demonstrate U.S. willingness to help reduce violence and resolve social ills.

The reduction, or outright legalization, of the consumption of marijuana in the U.S., as well as the prohibition of the sale of assault weapons—which was in place between 1994 and 2004—would be key steps forward. This week, Obama and Boehner should at the very least commit to supporting the proposed reporting requirements of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for assault-weapons sales. Anything short of that would be a major disappointment for Calderón and the Mexican people. The U.S. government would also be wise to encourage Mexican law enforcement to follow its example by focusing less on the transportation of marijuana and more on combating serious crimes.

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Support for Mexico should also go beyond funding “social development” and law-enforcement-training programs to include a wide-ranging policy of investment and economic development. Such an initiative could include direct payments to Mexican farmers to destroy their drug crops and turn to other lines of business, as has been the policy in Afghanistan.

It’s surprising that the State Department’s Merida Initiative, which has channeled more than $1.5 billion to Mexico over the past four years, has not included any crop-eradication efforts or significant economic development programs.

Action is essential before it is too late. The violence in Libya pales in comparison with the thousands of civilians who have fallen in Mexico. The turmoil in the Middle East should not distract the U.S. from the urgent need to encourage peace and prosperity south of the border

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of Mexicans who are poor and living in extreme poverty.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review, and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. His website is johnackerman.blogspot.com.