- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

MEXICO CITY | Meeting face-to-face with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, President Obama on Thursday said the U.S. is to blame for much of Mexico’s drug violence, and he set up a major congressional gun-control battle by calling on the Senate to ratify a treaty designed to track and cut the flow of guns to other countries.

Mr. Obama said he wants to renew a ban on some semiautomatic weapons but that it is not likely to pass Congress. Instead, he called for the Senate to ratify a decade-old hemispherewide treaty that would require nations to mark all weapons produced in the country and track them to make sure no weapons were exported to countries where they were banned.

“I will not pretend that this is Mexico’s responsibility alone. The demand for these drugs in the United States is what’s helping keep these cartels in business,” Mr. Obama said at a joint news conference with Mr. Calderon. “This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border.”

But the treaty is likely to run into opposition from gun rights backers, and the Senate’s top Democrat was noncommittal Thursday about the measure.

Mr. Calderon urged the U.S. to consider a gun registry and a prohibition on bulk sales of firearms.

On other issues, Mr. Calderon pushed Mr. Obama to develop an immigration policy that would legalize illegal Mexican immigrants and establish a future flow of workers. The Mexican president also said he had presented Mr. Obama with proposals for a bilateral carbon-dioxide emissions trading scheme to combat climate change, and with a plan for infrastructure projects on the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to boost jobs and cooperation.

The two also found areas of disagreement. On Cuba, Mexico would like the U.S. to lift its trade embargo entirely while Mr. Obama has taken an incremental approach. They also disagreed on a program allowing some Mexican trucks to operate far into the U.S.

Mexico says it is entitled to operate trucks in the U.S. under a free-trade agreement, but Congress and Mr. Obama ended the program earlier this year.

Mr. Obama is making a one-day visit to Mexico before flying Friday to Trinidad, where he will attend the Summit of the Americas with leaders of 33 other Western Hemisphere nations.

In taking responsibility for some of the causes of Mexico’s drug violence, Mr. Obama was following through on signals from top administration officials. Mexico wants the U.S. to provide money and equipment such as military helicopters, and to impose tougher restrictions on guns.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said he wanted to renew the 1994 ban on some semiautomatic weapons, which expired in 2004. But he told his Mexican hosts that it’s not likely to pass Congress, saying instead that the U.S. should do what it can under existing laws, and go a step further by ratifying the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials (CIFTA).

President Clinton signed CIFTA in 1997, but it has never been ratified.

Mr. Obama said the treaty would “curb small-arms trafficking that is a source of so many of the weapons used in this drug war.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said he supports Mr. Obama’s ratification push and will work to get it through the Senate.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was less committal about the specifics.

“We must work with Mexico to curtail the violence and drug trafficking on America’s southern border, and must protect Americans’ Second Amendment rights,” Mr. Reid said. “I look forward to working with the president to ensure we do both in a responsible way.”

Mr. Obama repeated the statistic that 90 percent of illegal firearms used in crimes come from the U.S., and Mr. Calderon backed him.

But gun-rights groups have challenged the number, and Fox News said the statistic is distorted because it covers only a subset of the weapons the Mexican government seizes.

In its report, Fox News said only about 17 percent of the 29,000 guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes in 2007 and 2008 could be positively traced to the U.S. Some couldn’t be traced at all and others were never submitted to U.S. officials for tracing because they clearly came from somewhere else.

It’s also unclear how much effect stopping the U.S. flow would have.

“That to some degree is a red herring because while it’s convenient for the cartels to acquire weapons in the United States, the cartels have so much money they can go into the open arms market and buy weapons. Central America, for example, is chockablock with sophisticated weapons left over from the 1980s,” said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and a Mexico researcher.

“It’s a good reason to bash the U.S. because it is unfortunate that the arms are flowing southward, but if you cut off completely that flow of arms, it would be a thorn in the side, but not a dagger in the heart to the cartels,” he said.

On another thorny issue, a Mexican reporter asked Mr. Obama about his support in 2006 for the Secure Fence Act, which called for building fencing along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mr. Obama pointed out that he has also voted for two bills that would have legalized illegal immigrants.

He did not give a timetable but repeated his goal of legalizing illegal immigrants and giving many of them a path to citizenship if they pay a penalty.

“My whole goal is to remove the politics of this and take a very practical, common-sense approach that benefits people on both sides of the border,” he said.

Ahead of this weekend’s Summit of the Americas, Mr. Obama submitted an op-ed in a dozen papers across Latin America calling on the region to move beyond debates over capitalism versus socialism, and defended his decision to curtail but not lift the U.S. trade and travel embargo to Cuba.

“Each of our countries has pursued its own democratic journey, but we must be joined together in our commitment to liberty, equality, and human rights,” Mr. Obama said in the op-ed.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said there is no specific plan to meet at the summit one-on-one with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, though he would not rule out a conversation between the two men if Mr. Chavez pulled Mr. Obama aside in a group meeting.

White House officials said Mr. Obama also placed a call Thursday to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in which the American president tried to head off having the summit get bogged down on non-central issues.

Like Mexico, other Latin American leaders are pushing for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Cuba, and some leaders have indicated they would like to make that part of the agenda.

Asked about Cuba at his news conference, Mr. Obama said his move last week to lift the strictest parts of the embargo on remittances and travel by those with relatives in Cuba is a first step, and the challenge is now to the island nation’s communist leaders to reciprocate with some liberalization on freedom of speech, religion and travel.