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Obama's Trip To Support Mexico's Anti-Drug Effort

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee is on assignment, and coincidentally so is the president. He travels to Mexico today. And we have reports from both sides of the border. Mexico faces a war between drug cartels. The prize they are fighting for is control of smuggling channels into the United States. Just this week authorities seized a collection of weapons from suspected cartel members. The arsenal included an anti-aircraft gun. This is the country where President Obama arrives today and our coverage begins in Mexico City with NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN: President Obama comes to Mexico amidst extremely high expectations here for his administration and for this visit. Trips over the last few weeks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder were all widely viewed as successful and were closely followed by the Mexican press. More than 115 journalists showed up earlier this month for a press conference here with Napolitano and Holder.

Jose Luis Valdes, the director of the Center for North American Research at UNAM, the Autonomous National University of Mexico, says the earlier cabinet member trips created a feeling in Mexico that the relationship between these two countries is fundamentally changing.

Mr. JOSE LUIS VALDES (Center for North American Research): So I think this is positive and gives chances for optimism in terms of creating the right climate to talk, which was really impossible with Bush, to talk.

BEAUBIEN: In Mexico there's a view that most of the country's biggest problems - around drugs, violence, migration, economic growth - are all intrinsically linked to the U.S. In the run-up to this visit, Obama administration officials have been stating repeatedly that they want to usher in a new era of cooperation with Mexico. A brutal drug war right now is dominating the country and it's dominating President Felipe Calderon's term in office.

More than 10,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon launched his offensive against the narcotics cartels in December of 2006. The gangs moved billions of dollars worth of drugs across Mexico into the U.S. each year. Secretary of State Clinton, en route to Mexico, acknowledged American culpability in an issue that some analysts have said could push Mexico into a state of failure.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.

BEAUBIEN: Valdes at UNAM says regarding Cuba the Obama administration's moves to relax money transfers and travel restrictions were also welcomed here as steps in the right direction. He expects President Obama and President Calderon will discuss the global economic crisis and migration.

Mr. VALDES: Security is in the agenda. I think security is going to be the one, the one issue that is going to be a priority for both. We've been seeing that in the last days.

BEAUBIEN: The Obama administration has put forward a plan to send hundreds of additional agents to the border and offered hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico to help them fight drug trafficking. Mexico also wants the U.S. to do more to stem the flow of weapons across the border. Trade is also on the agenda in the midst of a NAFTA-related trade dispute. Mexico has slapped billions of dollars in tariffs on some U.S. imports in retaliation for Washington's suspending a program to allow Mexican trucks onto American highways.

Under NAFTA, Mexican big rigs were supposed to get access to the interior of the country, but domestic truckers have argued that Mexican trucks don't meet U.S. safety standards. Valdez says he doesn't expect a quick resolution to this dispute and thus he predicts the leaders will downplay the issue. Calderon is from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. Politically he is one of the most conservative leaders in Latin America. But even leftists in Mexico are expressing optimism that this meeting between Calderon and President Obama will open the door for their social agenda.

Mr. ALEJANDRO CHANONA BURGETTE (Mexican Congressman): We expect them to discuss development.

BEAUBIEN: Alejandro Chanona Burgette is a congressman with the relatively small leftist party Convergencia.

Mr. BURGETTE: In Mexico the main problem is not only (unintelligible) but also social exclusion. Poverty in Mexico is a big issue.

BEAUBIEN: Chanona says poverty is driving illegal migration to the United States. It's providing a cheap labor force to the drug cartels. He says poverty alleviation and rural development in the hemisphere must be on the agenda for President Obama's visit. Then after a pause he concedes that expectations for this one day meeting may be excessively high.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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