Can Obama and Calderon Solve Mexico’s Bloodshed — and the Bad Blood?

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Are the U.S. and Mexico in “distant neighbors” mode again?

In the wake of last month’s murder of a U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, by narco-criminals on a Mexican highway, the façade of U.S.-Mexico drug-war camaraderie appears to be cracking. Already irked by recently WikiLeaked cables between U.S. diplomats that fret about Mexico’s spiraling drug violence – and which suggest that his anti-narco offensive and the Mexican agencies executing it are dysfunctional – Mexican President Felipe Calderón last week insisted to the Mexico City daily El Universal that U.S. anti-drug agencies are no better. “They don’t coordinate with each other,” he said. “They’re rivals.” A day later, the White House announced Calderón would visit President Obama in Washington on Thursday, March 3, to “review” the bilateral fight against drug cartels.

White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that a key reason for Thursday’s meeting, the fifth between the two Presidents, is to assure Calderón that Obama is “deeply committed to the strong partnership that the U.S. has with Mexico.” But the U.S. cables, leaked in December, and Calderón’s latest comments betray growing frustrations on both sides. Mexico set another record in 2010 for drug-related murders, more than 15,000, further blunting enthusiasm in Washington for the $1.5 billion drug-war plan, the Mérida Initiative – and for Calderón’s strategy of deploying his military against drug cartels. Calderón, meanwhile, wants Washington to do more to curb rampant U.S. drug consumption, and he’s reportedly miffed that Obama has seemingly caved to the U.S. gun lobby and refused to expedite new measures to monitor the sale of high-powered arms that often get smuggled into Mexico – including perhaps the gun that killed ICE agent Jaime Zapata.

The U.S. has its own complaint about guns – namely, that hyper-nationalist Mexico still prohibits U.S. agents like Zapata from carrying them when working south of the border, despite the frightening level of violence there. And Calderón didn’t help his case much when his Universal interview ran the same day Zapata was being buried.

But the Obama Administration – which on Tuesday announced it had arrested 678 alleged drug-gang members in 168 cities, many of them associated with Mexican cartels – may have underestimated how badly the leaked cables insulted Calderón, who is also described personally in one as seeming “down” in government meetings as criticism of his anti-cartel crusade mounts at home and abroad. The Mexican media are speculating that Calderon’s relationship with Obama’s Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, is particularly frosty. In a March 1 article, the Mexico City Daily Reforma notes that since WikiLeaks released the cables, Pascual “hasn’t been received at Los Pinos,” the Mexican presidential palace. Rosario Green, a former Mexican foreign minister and head of the Mexican Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, urged Calderón this week to “speak firmly to Obama” and tell the U.S. to “stop sowing lies.”

Perhaps, then, Obama, 49, and Calderón, 48, can lighten the cross-border air by instead appreciating one important fact about each other’s situation: neither will really be able to claim triumph in the drug war before he leaves office (in Calderón’s case, December 2012). But they may well be able to take bows, say, a generation from now.

If he’s lucky, Calderón’s gutsy but ill-conceived military campaign won’t be his lasting legacy. Instead, the history books will best remember him for his judicial reforms, like oral criminal trials and the eradication of hopelessly corrupt local cops, which should eventually do far more to win Mexico’s drug war than most of his predecessors’ half-baked changes ever did – but which could take a decade or more to show results, as folks in once-crime-plagued places like Sicily and Hong Kong will attest. Likewise, Obama should be remembered as the first U.S. President to admit that the gringos’ voracious drug appetite and irresponsible gun culture are a large cause of the Mexican narco-tragedy. Yet efforts he started, like increased drug rehab funding, could take a long while to bear fruit.

As long as Obama and Calderón keep those long-term realities in mind, they stand a better chance of working past irritants like the WikiLeaks cables – and tragedies like the Zapata killing.