The start of a new government in Mexico is a good opportunity for the United States and its southern neighbor to rethink their bilateral relationship, reducing the emphasis on security issues, in particular the war on drugs, and giving more attention to economic issues.
Given what President Obama said during his meeting this week with President-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, it appears that the U.S. administration understands the need to modify its approach to relations with Mexico. Obama said it is important to see how both countries can strengthen “economic ties,” “trade ties,” “coordination along the border,” and “joint competitiveness.” All while of course not forgetting “security issues.”
From the Mexican side, it also seems there is clarity on the need for this shift in perspective. “It’s a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns,” Peña Nieto said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. “Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way.”
It should come as no surprise that both leaders speak of this new approach to the bilateral relationship. Economic issues are too important to relegate to the back burner. Mexico is the second largest buyer of U.S. goods — after Canada — and the third-leading supplier of U.S. imports after China and Canada. Almost 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are to the United States. Trade between the two countries totals around $460 billion annually, according to Congressional Research Service’s 2011 figures.
Besides trade relations, the links between the U.S. and Mexico include issues surrounding a 2,000-mile shared border, investment, regulatory cooperation, migration, tourism, environmental matters, health concerns, family relationships and culture. In short, there is a broad and complex bilateral relationship, and neither side now seems to doubt the need to remove the nearly absolute emphasis on safety.
The problem is that this change will not be easy. The Obama administration has focused on security and the war on drugs because most of the billions of dollars worth of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine sold in the United States pass through Mexico, trafficked by violent, feuding cartels. It is rightly an issue of national security for the Obama administration.
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This interest of the U.S. government in the war on drugs was joined on the Mexican side by the government of President Felipe Calderon, which made it one of the central pillars of his administration. From this partnership came the so-called Merida Initiative, for which Congress authorized nearly $2 billion dollars in military aid, intelligence and legal advice to strengthen the Mexican judicial system.
Peña Nieto says his government will have other priorities. Though he will remain engaged in the war on drugs, he will do things differently. Mexican society is clamoring for an end to violence resulting from the war on drugs, which has left more than 60,000 dead in Calderon’s six-year term. Not that Mexicans are asking to stop the fight against drug trafficking, but they want an end to the bloodshed. And that’s where Peña Nieto says he’ll focus his attention; on fighting murder, extortion, kidnapping and other violent crimes that affects the daily lives of Mexicans.
The challenge for the Obama administration will be to adjust to the new Mexican government and cease to allow the anti-drug strategy to define the bilateral relationship. The U.S. should continue its support for Mexico’s army and police and, in particular, its efforts to strengthen the weak Mexican judicial system. It is essential that crimes are investigated, that the police does not torture and that the Mexican army respect human rights, including accepting that its members be tried in civilian courts when their actions have affected civilians.
These are matters of Mexican domestic politics, but should concern the U.S., which should continue its collaboration. In the end, Mexicans would more readily support the war on drugs if they saw advances in the rule of law.
The U.S. also has unfinished business in this war on drugs. Guns and money flow from the United States to Mexico, and this issue often has been used by Mexican politicians to avoid responsibility for drug violence in Mexico. Instead, they simply accuse the United States of fomenting violence.
While this may be demagogic, is partly true. Illegal weapons coming from the United States play an important part in the violence in Mexico. The drug money—between $7 billion and $20 billion annually, according to various estimates — allows traffickers to buy influence and finance the violence, along with their fancy lifestyles. The Obama administration has to do something to prevent or at least reduce the traffic of weapons and cash into Mexico.
On the economic front, the best thing to do is to increase integration between the two economies, to have fewer barriers to trade, to facilitate foreign investment in Mexico, and to support the Mexican government’s efforts to improve infrastructure. Mexico’s economic growth favors the United States. That new middle class that is of so much talk today in Mexico and the U.S. press is a natural market for U.S. goods and services.
Under Peña Nieto, there will be a new area in which the United States can play an important role: the oil industry. The president-elect has said that one of his policies will be to open PEMEX, the Mexican state entity responsible for the oil industry, to domestic and foreign private investment. Without appearing that it wants to take control of Mexican oil, the U.S. can cooperate with Mexico in this field as it has done on security. The United States imports annually about $40 billion of Mexican oil. Mexico on the other hand, buys from the U.S. about $20 billion in refined petroleum products.
The immigration issue has always been part of the bilateral agenda, although in recent years, due to a post 9/11 emphasis on security, and the fact that there was no movement in the U.S. Congress, the issue has received little attention. Now the Obama administration says that an immigration reform will be one of its priorities and it is time to bring the immigration file back to the bilateral agenda.
The U.S. should take Peña Nieto’s offer at the White House to cooperate with Obama on the issue of immigration reform. Mexico can help in establishing a credible and effective guest worker program, as well as by developing economic and social programs at home so that fewer people migrate to the United States.
The arrival of a new government in Mexico which asks the United States to remove the emphasis on security should be taken as an opportunity for the Obama administration to establish a new relationship with its southern neighbor. Given Obama’s comments during his first meeting with Pena Nieto, there is reason to be optimistic. On the other hand, Obama’s delegation to the inauguration of Peña Nieto sends mixed signals. With Vice President Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Obama also included John Brennan, his main contra-terrorism adviser.
Perhaps it would have been more in tune with the times to send a business or financial leader, rather than one from the security field. Sure, it’s only a symbolic issue, but as they say in Mexico, la forma es tambien el fondo — form is also substance.