May 20th 2010 | MEXICO CITY
From The Economist print edition
From The Economist print edition
Mr Calderón goes to Washington
WHEN Barack Obama invited his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, to be his guest in Washington for only the second state visit of his presidency, he was underlining that the two neighbours have become friends. Yet the timing of the trip, on May 19th, has turned out to be unfortunate. It comes amid a furious row on both sides of the border over a law approved in Arizona last month, which requires state police to check the immigration status of any “suspicious” individuals, apparently meaning Mexicans. And on May 14th a senior member of Mr Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), Diego Fernández de Cevallos, went missing from his ranch. It seems he had been abducted.
At least Mr Calderón and Mr Obama had plenty to talk about over dinner at the White House, even if the issues—migration and the drug “war”—are depressingly familiar. When Mr Calderón visited Washington shortly before Mr Obama’s inauguration, the two leaders proclaimed a new era of partnership. But relations between their two countries often seem stuck in a pattern of flare-ups and make-ups: over American protectionism, human-rights abuses by Mexico’s army, drug violence spilling over the border and the southward flows of guns and cash.
The Arizona law marks a new nadir. Mr Calderón called the measure “backward” and “discriminatory”. His government issued a travel alert, which will discourage citizens from visiting the state. The governors of Mexico’s border states said they would boycott a routine meeting with their American counterparts in Phoenix.
Will the state visit break the pattern? Diplomats from both countries note that their daily collaboration has improved. Co-operation on security is probably closer than it has ever been. American officials have begun searching southbound traffic and seizing illicit cargo. The Mérida initiative, a scheme under which the United States has offered Mexico modest anti-drug aid, has been extended and tweaked to emphasise strengthening institutions, such as the judiciary. Mexico has extradited suspected narcos in unprecedented numbers. Mr Obama shares Mr Calderón’s opposition to the Arizona law, calling it “misguided”. He would like to enact a comprehensive immigration reform.
As so often, the main obstacle to further progress is domestic politics in both countries. Many Americans in border states support cracking down on illegal migrants, and Mr Obama’s Democratic Party faces difficult mid-term elections in November. If Mexico protests too much, it risks galvanising the law’s backers, which could lead other states to copy Arizona’s policies.
Meanwhile, Mr Calderón’s party was routed in Mexico’s mid-terms last July, and will have to confront voters again in local elections this summer. He has almost no chance of obtaining the big policy reforms needed to address the country’s economic and security troubles.
Polls suggest that Mexicans are becoming sceptical of Mr Calderón’s insistence that he is beating the drug gangs. They may not be reassured by the recent leaking of an internal government estimate that 23,000 people have been killed in the violence since 2006. That is well above the 18,000 previously reckoned by the press.
The traffickers are getting ever more brazen. In March they gunned down three people with ties to the American consulate in Ciudad Juárez. Although several local politicians have been killed by the mafias, Mr Fernández de Cevallos is a far more prominent figure. He was a former presidential candidate, highly influential in the pan and close to Mexico’s security establishment. If he has indeed been murdered—or if he were to be held hostage for months—the pressure on Mr Calderón to rethink the intensity of his assault on the drug gangs might well grow. And so might the concern in Washington.