Will tensions over security spoil the Obama-Peña Nieto Summit?

By Tom Long

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The meeting in December between recently re-elected President Barack Obama and President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was marked by cordiality and a desire to talk about anything but the often grisly drug-related violence in Mexico during the previous six years.  Since then, Peña Nieto has continued the changed emphasis, aided by headlines pivoting to positive stories.  Mexico has been recently hailed for its economic growth, particularly in export-oriented manufacturing, and for a series of political compromises that The Washington Post favorably compared with the U.S. Congressional stalemate.  Despite optimistic claims from the government, Mexican media reports indicate that drug-related violence continues at nearly the same pace as last year.  (Click here for a summary and analysis by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Moreover, pressure is growing on questions of human rights violations committed in the name of the war on drugs.  When Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama meet again in early May, holding back a renewed focus on security is likely to be a challenge.

Peña Nieto’s political incentives do not point to the same, high-profile cooperation with the United States that occurred under President Felipe Calderón, who had already begun shifting priorities last year.  Despite the major turnaround signified by the PRI’s signing NAFTA almost 20 years ago, Peña Nieto’s PRI still contains elements more skeptical of U.S. “intervention” than Calderón’s PAN.  Materially, moreover, most of the U.S. aid planned under the Mérida Initiative has been disbursed, and Congress exhibits little appetite for major new appropriations.  (Even at its height, U.S. spending was a fraction of Mexico’s contribution to the drug war.)  That reduction, coupled with growing awareness that the Calderón strategy actually fueled violence, diminishes the enthusiasm in and outside of government for continuing his policies.   Frustration from the left in both countries regarding persisting human rights violations and the slow pace of judicial reform could also grow more serious.

While these problems may be causing tensions between U.S. and Mexican police and military at the operational level, they seem to be manageable so far – and both Presidents are likely to emphasize intelligence-sharing and similar bilateral cooperation that does not require resources.  Upper echelons of the Obama administration seem to understand that Peña Nieto’s push to de-emphasize security and promise to focus on violence reduction over drug interdiction is politically necessary.  But the moral argument has not changed:  Mexicans suffer the violent consequences spawned by U.S. drug use and counterdrug policies.  Weapons sold on the U.S. side of the border continue to flow into Mexico, an issue now atop the U.S. political agenda for entirely domestic reasons.  If the two countries can manage to keep security problems at a lower decibel, they will better cooperate on issues that are just as vital but could pay larger dividends — immigration, transboundary energy, educational exchange, and infrastructure.

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