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Obama and Mexico: Managing Incipient Chaos

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Visiting Mexico City, President Barack Obama cited JFK's remark that "the bonds between our two countries cannot be broken."

Another country, another crisis. President Barack Obama summited yesterday in Mexico City with President Felipe Calderon, pledging to help Mexico's elected government beat back the challenge of powerful drug cartels that increasingly out-gun Mexican security forces. But Obama's measures will only manage the incipient chaos, not end it.

Which has actually long been typical of America's policies with regard to Mexico.

In his 1981 book "The Nine Nations of North America," author Joel Garreau referred to the Border Patrol as "a regulatory agency." In the sense that it was not set up to halt illegal immigration from Mexico but to manage it. To make it difficult enough to prevent an open border scenario, but not so difficult as to prevent American businesses from benefiting from the efficiencies of an influx of cheap labor, even as American social institutions struggled to provide services.

The dynamic was probably inevitable, with a poor nation sharing a 2,000-mile border with a rich nation.

Another inevitable dynamic is playing out between Mexico and America, which seized its Southwest from Mexico in the 19th century. Americans like to get loaded and/or high, whether it's with illegal drugs, legal alcohol, or prescription drugs. And we make a lot of guns.

Obama, appearing with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, announced a program to combat the drug cartels but won't move to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

Mexican drug cartels have taken the place of the famed old Columbian cartels in funneling illegal drugs into the US, where they're mostly distributed by American gangs. With the money they make in America, and the weapons they acquire in America -- about 90% of the weapons captured from cartel members by Mexican security forces come from the US -- the drug cartels have grown so powerful and bold that they threaten the government's hold on the country.

In the first presidential visit to Mexico City since 1996, Obama expressed his solidarity with the Mexican government's fight against the drug cartels. And he became the first to acknowledge the obvious, that this crisis exists because of the dynamic with America.

Obama visited Mexico, whose government is beset by powerful drug cartels fueled by Americans' appetite for illegal drugs and armed with American weapons.

"I will not pretend that this is Mexico's responsibility alone. Demand for these drugs in the United States is what is helping to keep these cartels in business," said Obama in a joint press conference with Calderon at Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence. But he made clear that his goal is to manage the chaos, by reducing the drug cartels to "a localized criminal problem, as opposed to a major structural problem that threatens stability in communities along those borders and that increases corruption and threatens the rule of law."

One way to cut the Mexican drug cartels down to size is to legalize drugs in America. After all, the end of Prohibition against liquor in the US was a huge setback for America's organized crime groups. Mexico's ambassador to the US suggested the legalization of marijuana last week. But Obama is not going to move to legalize marijuana, much less cocaine or heroin.

Another way to shrink the cartels' growing power is to largely eliminate the flow of weaponry to them. President Calderon has asked the US government to reinstate the assault weapons ban, noting that the cartels were not nearly so well-armed during it. Obama has backed away from a renewal of the assault weapons ban, which he supported as a candidate. The ban, which was championed by California Senator Dianne Feinstein and enacted under President Bill Clinton, was allowed to lapse during the Bush/Cheney years. It would take a real fight to get another assault weapons ban through Congress.

Mexico is beset by powerful drug cartels warring with one another and with agencies of the Mexican government.

So what is Obama doing in America to manage the chaos in Mexico? Mostly classic law enforcement actions, plus a more aggressive move against the guns short of the assault weapons ban.

For one thing, with more agents in the border areas, Obama is going after the linkages between the Mexican cartels and their American distributors.

For another, he is going after the cartels' money, targeting three big cartels as "significant foreign narcotics drug traffickers under U.S. law, clearing the way for our Treasury Department, together with Mexico, to freeze their assets and subject them to sanctions."

And he is going after the guns with promises of stepped-up enforcement of existing laws and a push to have the US Senate at last ratify a treaty adopted by virtually every other nation in the Hemisphere to control the export of firearms.

Will that be enough to manage Mexico's incipient chaos? Obama is evidently judging that it will be, at least for now. Perhaps more to the point, he is also evidently judging that he has higher priorities on his very expansive agenda on which to expend his political capital.

While these rather limited new initiatives from Obama work their way through the system, Mexico's government soldiers on against the cartels, with some additional military aid from the US. But the Calderon Administration is a minority government, with much of the population believing it was robbed in the election.

Mexico has had a stable, though decidedly one party, democracy for a very long time. The PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, always won presidential elections until 2000. A part of its left wing split off in 1988 as the PRD. Party of the Democratic Revolution. By 2000, that was enough for Mexico's conservative party, the PAN, or National Action Party, to win the presidency.

In 2006, Calderon, the PAN candidate, eked out a very narrow over the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with only 35.9% of the vote. The results were bitterly challenged and millions of Mexicans took the streets in protest.

After televised brawls on the floor of the national Congress, Calderon was finally sworn in as president of Mexico. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended the festivities, described the scene as "absolutely wild."

Needless to say, there were already some big cracks in Calderon's influence over the country.

Will Obama's moves help stabilize Mexico? They can't hurt. But I have a feeling this discussion is only just beginning.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

Around the Web

Obama: Mexico drug war 'sowing chaos' - White House- msnbc.com

Mexico, awaiting Obama, hopes for change - Los Angeles Times

BBC NEWS | Americas | Obama backs Mexico's war on drugs

Obama backs Mexico's effort to fight drugs