- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mexican President Felipe Calderon was the first head of state President Obama sat down with after being elected in 2008, and both men talked then of improving the relationship between the two countries. Two years later, Mexico’s ongoing drug war, America’s fractious immigration battle and the bloody costs of U.S. guns flooding across the border have wreaked havoc on the alliance.

Soothing frayed relations will be at the top of Mr. Obama’s agenda when Mr. Calderon visits the White House on Thursday, just days after the Mexican leader bashed American leaders for failing to make good on promises of stemming the flow of guns and money that Mr. Calderon says are fueling Mexico’s drug war.

“As far as reducing the demand for drugs, they haven’t done so,” Mr. Calderon told his country’s El Universal newspaper last week, according to the Associated Press. “As far as reducing the flow of arms, they haven’t, it has increased.”

Add to those concerns the killing last month of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico and WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables containing embarrassing U.S. criticism of Mr. Calderon’s government and the list of flash points is extensive.

One of the inducements Mr. Obama is likely to offer the Mexican president: additional U.S. assistance under the Merida Initiative, a $1.5 billion anti-trafficking partnership signed into law by President George W. Bush.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, said the White House plans to implement $500 million in Merida aid for Mexico by the end of this year, which would bring the total so far to $900 million.

Describing the U.S. relationship with Mexico as one of the”most varied, complex and important” for the U.S., the official said Mr. Calderon’s visit was planned before the killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata in mid-February.

Even so, Mr. Zapata’s slaying is likely to cast a shadow over the meeting. Mexican officials quickly arrested a suspect in the case, but the episode renewed some U.S. fears that Mr. Calderon’s government is not up to the task of reining in the country’s drug gangs.

It likewise raised questions about the Mexican government’s rules prohibiting U.S. agents from carrying weapons in Mexico. This week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a congressional panel that the administration may lobby for a “different policy” that would allow U.S. law enforcement officials to arm themselves across the border.

On Wednesday, the administration official refused to answer directly when asked if the White House is indeed revisiting its position on the matter, saying only “it’s a top priority” to ensure that American personnel serving abroad are safe.

The killing also highlights the thorny issue of firearms being smuggled from underground dealers in border states to cartels in Mexico — at least one of the guns used in Mr. Zapata’s killing was traced back to Texas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Mr. Calderon has long pressed for more U.S. action to halt the flow of weapons into Mexico as well as additional federal curbs on certain weapons.

In an address to Congress last year, Mr. Calderon implored lawmakers to reinstate an expired ban on semiautomatic weapons, which he said are ending up in the hands of violent criminals south of the border. Mr. Obama has expressed support for bringing back the ban, as well as approving a long-stalled gun treaty known as CIFTA, but his administration has not pushed Congress on either issue, at least publicly.

Immigration is sure to come up when the two leaders meet, but it’s not clear how detailed the discussion will be. Mr. Obama has called for Congress to pass a broad bill that would create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the effort stalled even when his party controlled both chambers of Congress. Newly elected House Republicans appear more focused on enforcement and against what they decry as “amnesty” for those who broke the law by entering the country improperly.

The administration official did not broach December’s WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables, in which the Mexican government is described as inefficient and plagued with infighting as well as suspected corruption.

The disclosures were explosive enough to warrant a personal phone call by Mr. Obama to Mr. Calderon soon after the flap. Mr. Calderon described the cables as “distorted,” particularly with respect to criticism of a lack of coordination among Mexican agencies, telling El Universal, “I do not have to tell the U.S. ambassador how many times I meet with my security Cabinet, it is none of his business.”

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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