Obama’s Mexico Visit: Not Just About the Drug War Anymore

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When former Mexican President Felipe Calderón waged his war on drug cartels, the media were guaranteed a crime photo op every few weeks. Alleged gangsters were thrust before the press along with heaps of guns, money and narcotics. These narco-perp walks were often accompanied by videos in which heavy-breathing suspects confessed how they had committed hundreds of murders and smuggled tons of cocaine to American users. And the parades often coincided with top U.S. officials visiting Mexico and trumpeting how the two nations stood shoulder to shoulder in their joint fight against cartel crime.

However, it is unlikely that U.S. President Barack Obama will be shown any such displays when he visits Mexico this Thursday. Since President Enrique Peña Nieto took power in December, the parades have stopped as part of an overhaul in the government’s security strategy. (Human-rights defenders also decried these staged pantomimes of justice.) Peña Nieto has shifted focus from fighting cartels to modernizing the economy and has encouraged media outlets to dedicate less coverage to decapitations and shoot-outs. In the run-up to Obama’s visit, both governments have emphasized trade and immigration reform over the battle with the cocaine kings. “The Peña Nieto administration has made it clear it wants to reduce the emphasis on violence and wants to talk about other things such as its reform agenda,” says security analyst Alejandro Hope, a former official of Mexico’s intelligence agency, CISEN. “It wants to change the conversation.”

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This strategic shift of Peña Nieto, whose election returned to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for most of the past century, is being debated on both sides of the Rio Grande. In his defense, Peña Nieto stresses that his government still arrests drug traffickers but does not let them dominate the national agenda. The first four months of his government saw similar quantities of drugs seized overall as in the same time frame under Calderón, albeit with a little more cocaine and a little less marijuana. However, Peña Nieto has moved away from the bellicose drug-war rhetoric of Calderón (who dressed up in military uniform to address troops), focusing instead on crime-prevention programs and police reform. “The Peña Nieto government is trying to minimize the visibility of drug traffickers to take them out of the spotlight,” says Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S.’s Drug Enforcement Administration. “It is like with massacres in the United States: there is criticism of the press if it gives too much attention to the stories of the killers.”

The Obama Administration has supported the changed position, at least in public comments. After meeting with his Mexican counterpart this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said trade topped the agenda. “We don’t want to define this relationship with Mexico or with other countries in the context of security or counter-narcotics trafficking,” Kerry said. “We want to define it much larger in the context of our citizens’ economic needs and our capacity to do more on the economic frontier.” Mexico is the U.S.’s third largest trading partner after Canada and China, with an economy of over a trillion dollars, and is particularly important for business in the U.S. Southwest.

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The White House may also be relieved to talk less about the war on drugs. In their own fight against Mexican cartels, U.S. agents watched thousands of guns get trafficked to gangsters in an attempt to build larger cases, causing the “fast and furious” scandal. It is also hard for Washington to be gung ho on the international drug war after Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana in referendums last year — in contravention of U.N. treaties.

On the other side, some critics allege the Mexican President is failing to confront grave problems facing his country. “Since Enrique Peña Nieto came to power, he has created propaganda that tries to cover up and hide the violence,” wrote Raúl Benoit, a prominent journalist on Latin American crime, who was once kidnapped by Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar. When the PRI ruled Mexico for 71 straight years, high-level officials were arrested for working with gangsters, and some fear such arrangements could come back into play — although the new administration promises to weed out any corruption.

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Cartel warfare has raged on under Peña Nieto, with more than 4,000 drug-related killings from December to April, according to government figures. Victims include seven men whose corpses were stuck on white plastic chairs at a busy roundabout. Armed vigilante militias have also emerged in some communities to fight criminals, with desperate residents saying they can no longer wait for police or soldiers to keep them safe. However, the number of cartel murders at least seems to have stopped rising exponentially as they did in the first years of Calderón. From 2007 to 2010, drug murders quadrupled; in the past year, the rate has gone down by 14%, according to a government tally.

The lower priority of the drug war leaves some U.S. agents uncertain if they will be able to keep working with their Mexican colleagues to take down kingpins. Under Calderón, U.S. agencies shared unprecedented amounts of intelligence with Mexico, leading to the arrest or killing of dozens of high-level traffickers, such as Arturo Beltrán Leyva, whom Mexican marines shot dead in 2009. However, others predict that day-to-day operations will continue, albeit with less war talk from politicians. “Some Mexican agencies have become operationally dependent on U.S. intelligence,” says Hope, the former Mexican intelligence official. “And to put away any lingering suspicions, the Mexican government may also want to take down a major kingpin or two in the end.”