MEXICO CITY, Mexico — As Mexican President Felipe Calderon touches down in the city on a hill on Tuesday, he and U.S. President Barack Obama will have to cool a cross-border temperature that has heated up in recent months.
Events outside the leaders’ control have thrown oil on the fire, including the assassination of U.S. consulate workers in Ciudad Juarez, the murder of a Douglas rancher by an undocumented Mexican and the approval of an immigration-enforcement law in Arizona.
In addition to trying to show they are still great amigos, the leaders will have to confront the contradictory forces that have shaped U.S.-Mexico diplomacy for decades — and created a relationship described by a former U.S. ambassador as that between “the bear and the porcupine.”
During his visit, Calderon will attend a state dinner with Obama on Wednesday and then address Congress on Thursday.
In between the growls and pricks, here are five issues that will certainly be on the agenda for the summit.
1) Arizona's immigration law
With roars from Mexico over the April approval of SB1070 in Phoenix, Calderon will have to raise his voice on the matter. The law — which will empower Arizona police to check the papers of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant — was slammed south of the river by politicians of every stripe, business leaders, almost every major media personality and even rock singers. However, with Obama himself also coming out against the law, there is little point in Calderon screaming in the White House. As Mexican political pundit Jorge Chabat said: “Calderon knows he has to be prudent. You don’t want to corner your partner on something he cannot control.” Most likely, Chabat said, Calderon will politely ask Obama about the legal challenges and moan about it in public statements.
2) Immigration reform
While infuriating Mexico, the Arizona law has helped it in one roundabout way: putting immigration reform back on the agenda. In recent weeks, Obama and his aides have hinted they may actually try to tackle this mammoth and thorny issue before the mid-term elections in November — and to look for a way to regulate some of the 11 million people working in America without papers. While former Mexican President Vicente Fox campaigned actively in the U.S. for such a reform, Calderon realizes such a stance can be counterproductive. "In the U.S., there is an attitude of 'Mind your own business. You can’t tell us how to run our country,'" said David Shirk, a Mexico expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. But behind closed doors, Shirk said, Calderon will certainly ask Obama about his plans. A comprehensive U.S. immigration reform would be political gold for the Mexican president.
3) Ciudad Juarez
The river of blood that keeps growing thicker in Ciudad Juarez, south of El Paso, is making the law enforcement community on the U.S. southern border increasingly jittery. American observers were especially startled by the March assassination of a U.S. consulate worker and her prison guard husband in front of their 7-month-old baby. In total, there have been 5,000 homicides in Juarez since January 2008, making it the most murderous city on the planet. With the U.S. already putting $1.6 billion toward Mexico’s military crackdown on drug gangs, there seems little the presidents can add to the brute force approach. However, there may be a discussion about the U.S. boosting the social programs that Calderon has promised to try to stitch up Juarez’s bleeding ghettos.
4) Automatic rifle ban
“For Mexico, the No. 1 priority is guns. The No. 2 priority is guns. The No. 3 priority is guns,” then-Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said last year. Since then, U.S. efforts to try to slow the flow of sold-in-the-U.S.A. firearms appear to have had little impact, as highlighted by a raid last week of a Mexican narco-camp with a stunning 230 automatic rifles. Mexican officials have bemoaned that a return to the Clinton-era ban on sales of such weapons across the U.S. would be the only effective way of stopping them falling into the hands of Mexican gangsters. However, while Calderon will almost certainly bring the matter up, there is little optimism Obama will wade into this issue. “Obama has to pick his battles,” said Shirk. “You cannot fight for health reform, Wall Street reform, perhaps immigration reform and also take on the NRA.”
Under NAFTA, Mexican trucks were supposed to be roaming the length and breadth of America by 2000, but a decade later they have been kept off the U.S. highways. Particularly infuriating for Mexico is that the Obama administration actually stepped backward on the issue, failing to renew a pilot program started under President George W. Bush for Mexican wheelers to move on some U.S roads. That decision came under pressure from the Teamsters union, which claims the Mexican trucks aren’t safe. Obama promised last year that he would investigate the issue, but there has been no signs of a breakthrough coming. “The Obama administration,” said Shirk, “is even more beholden to these interest groups than the last government.”