President Obama arrives in Mexico on Thursday at a crucial moment for the joint fight the two countries have been waging against drug trafficking. Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, wants to change the rules of the game to diminish direct U.S. involvement in the drug war, and worried U.S. officials fear this means easing up on narcotics criminals.
Doubts about Mexico’s new approach to fighting the drug scourge surfaced when Mr. Peña Nieto campaigned last year on a platform criticizing the strategy of former President Felipe Calderón, whose no-holds-barred assault on narcocriminals led to an unprecedented level of cooperation with U.S. intelligence and security agencies. But it also produced some 60,000 deaths in a period of five years and raised enormous levels of anxiety inside the country.
The cornerstone of Mr. Peña Nieto’s security platform was a promise to lower violence against average Mexicans, rather than focus on taking out drug kingpins. But he insisted this did not mean that he would be soft on drugs. “Our top priority is to reduce the number of murders and kidnappings,” he told a European news magazine earlier this year. “But we also have to crush the mafia.”
In the last few months, however, U.S. fears have grown as Mexico builds its new counterdrug approach. A report in The Washington Post this week outlines various steps Mr. Peña Nieto’s government has taken to limit cooperation with U.S. intelligence and security agencies, including a decision not to allow Americans inside the regional anti-narcotics bases known as “fusion” centers.
The lack of certainty has been reflected on Capitol Hill, where influential Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has held up the release of $246 million in funding for Mexico, the latest installment of a $1.9 billion anticrime package known as the Merida Initiative.
This gives Mr. Obama’s visit to Mexico a clear but difficult objective. He must persuade Mr. Peña Nieto not to ease up on the drug war, without seeming to bully the new president or arouse Mexico’s well known “anti-gringo” sentiments, which are never far from the surface when it comes to national sovereignty. At the same time, Mr. Obama must come away with something to reassure skeptics like Sen. Leahy that Mexico is indeed committed to the fight against narcotics criminals.
The importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship lends urgency to Mr. Obama’s task. The president and his Mexican counterpart must get off on the right foot as they each begin a new presidential term. Mexico and the United States have a broad range of mutual interests and concerns, foremost among them trade and border issues, that require cooperation. A dispute over security would hurt both countries.
Fortunately, Mr. Obama also brings some good news to Mexico — and to the Central American presidents he will visit in Costa Rica on a second leg of the trip. The United States is making progress on a new immigration law, which would provide a huge boost for millions of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans living in this country.
But here, too, the president has to secure help from Mr. Peña Nieto. His government’s cooperation will be essential to prevent a new wave of illegal immigration across our joint border. The promise of stronger efforts at cross-border enforcement by Mexico would be well-received in Washington and help to ease doubts about his government’s overall commitment to work with the United States.