When President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto meet at a summit in Mexico next week, the three North American leaders should tackle a number of critically important and interrelated issues facing their peoples, including reconsidering economic policies that contribute to dangerously skewed income inequality throughout North America, and the need to intelligently disengage from the failing drug war.
Unfortunately, the track record of eight previous "three amigos" summits since 2005 has rarely been one of candor or politically courageous action.
President Peña Nieto, who brought the notorious PRI party back to power in Mexico just over a year ago, is eager to project a positive image. He'll assure his guests that criminal mafias and the social decay of drug war violence can be managed in ways that won't impede economic growth, joining Obama and Harper in urging rapid adoption of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new 12-nation trade pact more sweeping than the NAFTA accords that went into effect 20 years ago.
In 2008, then candidate Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA to address its "shortcomings." President Obama later backed away from that pledge, but during his recent State of the Union address, he inadvertently articulated why increased direct foreign investment and higher volumes of trade tirelessly cited by free trade boosters as evidence of NAFTAs success are not reflected in the lives of ordinary workers and citizens in Mexico, Canada or the United States.
As he explained:
After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.
What the President could have added is that NAFTA and other international trade accords, enacted alongside financial and other wealth-friendly "reforms" during the last two decades, have dramatically undermined the bargaining position of American workers while facilitating unprecedented concentrations of wealth.
It's been even worse in Mexico. Since NAFTA's loosening of investment rules and the abandonment of tariffs began, a few clever insiders have amassed great fortunes. At the same time, millions of Mexico's farmers, small businesses and families were bankrupted and displaced, prompting their vast migration to Mexico's cities and the United States.
Before NAFTA was ratified in 1993, no fences had been built on any part of the U.S.-Mexican border, and Mexico's illicit drug industry was a far smaller and much less lethal enterprise than it is today.
Like other well-capitalized industries, drug traffickers nimbly restructured to take advantage of new commercial opportunities ushered in by NAFTA. They increased illegal cross-border sales, acquired more trafficked weapons, recruited economically dispossessed youth into their ranks and eventually diversified their criminal enterprises.
During his first year in office, President Peña Nieto's team has worked hard to generate the reassuring sensation that his administration has succeeded in turning a corner on the drug war. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence of substantive abatement in the rates of homicides, kidnappings, extortion or the gun trafficking spurred by profit-seeking drug traders all across Mexico.
Leaders of press freedom organizations, like Article 19, and independent journalist associations, like Periodistas de a Pie, assert that President Peña Nieto has used government influence to shift public perceptions about drug war violence. These groups' leaders cite routine "persuasion" calls from the President's press office to journalists who stray from the optimistic line. Subtle government pressures dovetail with the more direct, physical threats journalists get from criminal organizations to create a chilling atmosphere of self-censorship.
By not directly and creatively addressing destabilizing wealth disparities and the disaster of the drug war, President Obama and his colleagues are missing a huge opportunity.
To stem inequality, our leaders should halt the rush to enact the TPP. We cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the wealth-concentrating, community-dismembering features of NAFTA.
To de-escalate the drug war, they should urge serious and well-considered regulation of illicit drugs as recommended by the Global Commission on Drugs whose members include former presidents of Latin Americas largest countries, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico -- all three of which have experienced devastating drug war violence.
The urgent call for sweeping drug policy reform by these distinguished Latin American leaders is echoed by medical professionals, law enforcement officials, and victims of the drug war in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
While individual states in the U.S. have moved quickly on marijuana, with 20 states and Washington, D.C. allowing medical marijuana, the federal government continues to apply its influence abroad in supporting the drug war. In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Washington state took an important first step by voting to legally regulate recreational marijuana. The country of Uruguay followed suit last year, and just last week, a bill to decriminalize marijuana for personal use was introduced in the Mexico City Legislative Assembly.
If the "three amigos" are serious about ending the pointless pain and bloodshed of the drug war, they will encourage these initiatives and move quickly to unravel the mindless, "one-size-fits-all," prohibition policies in force today.