Drug war dispute to dominate Obama-Calderon meeting

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Thursday, 3 March 2011 13:02 GMT

* Mexico says U.S. is not doing enough in drugs war

* Death of agent in Mexico stirs passions in U.S.

By Dave Graham and Matt Spetalnick

MEXICO CITY/WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon will press President Barack Obama to crack down on U.S. drug consumption and illegal arms sales when they meet on Thursday to smooth over troubles in their drugs war alliance.

Calderon last week accused the United States of damaging efforts to beat back drug cartels, just days after one of the worst attacks on U.S. officials in Mexico left one Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent dead and another wounded.

Instead of seeking to reassure Washington, Calderon uncharacteristically blasted the U.S. ambassador to Mexico as "ignorant", and lashed out at ICE, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration for their role in the drugs war.

"The reality is that they don't coordinate with each other, they're rivals," he told a Mexican newspaper. [ID:nN22298176]

The spat has raised the temperature for Calderon's first visit to Washington since May, although the two leaders will again commit to battling the gangs thwarting trade, investment and tourism, especially in increasingly lawless border areas.

The Obama administration has shown a fair amount of attention to Mexico and acknowledges its share of responsibility for the border chaos. But Calderon's visit comes at an unauspicious time for a White House wrapped up in the sweeping political changes across the Middle East.

Calderon said Washington must do more to curb U.S. demand for drugs and stop illegal weapons sales to Mexico. A senior U.S. government official said efforts had already been ramped up to stop weapons smuggling and cut demand for illegal drugs.

Since Calderon launched a war on the cartels in late 2006, more than 36,000 people have been killed, putting pressure on Mexico and the United States to beef up their response.

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Political risks in Mexico: [ID:nRISKMX]

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Intelligence sharing has increased but mistrust between security forces has hampered progress. Mexico's resources are stretched and the United States has limited options, needing to tread carefully in a neighbor mindful of its sovereignty.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, said Calderon should make clear at his fifth round of talks with Obama why there hasn't been more progress -- and lay the blame squarely at Washington's door.

"Why is he losing the fight? Because the U.S. provides guns and money. It's not his fault," he said. "If Calderon's willing to point that out publicly, it will help him symbolically. It will show Mexicans that he's standing up to the U.S."

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Washington was "very concerned" about the violence and needs to prevent the cartels from exporting the bloodshed north and trying to take over parts of the border.

POLITICAL COST

Calderon has staked his name on winning the drugs war, but the violence has dominated his presidency, stifling efforts to liberalize the economy and encourage foreign investment. A 2010 survey of U.S. firms showed 15 percent postponed investments or expansion in Mexico due to security worries. [ID:nN04184915]

His center-right National Action Party, or PAN, lags the opposition in polls ahead of a presidential vote next year.

Calderon maintains that high profile arrests and killings have weakened the big cartels, although the fallout has fueled the death count, generating more negative headlines.

Despite backing Calderon's drive to crush the cartels, recent spats and the killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata will not give Obama much leeway to make promises, analysts say.

"I don't think Obama can give big bear hugs to Calderon," said George W. Grayson, a political scientist and Mexico expert from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "An American law enforcement agent has just been killed in Mexico."

Mexican officials say the meeting will seek to improve joint cooperation over intelligence, while the U.S. official said it would also cover trade barriers, after a trucking dispute led Mexico to put duties on some U.S. goods in 2009.

Trade always looms large in the relationship, particularly for Mexico, which sells 80 percent of exports to its neighbor.

Zapata's death has also prompted calls from U.S. lawmakers that U.S. agents in Mexico should be allowed to carry guns.

"I see this assault as a direct assault on the United States and I think the United States needs to respond accordingly," Michael McCaul, a Republican Representative from Texas, told Fox News. "Our law enforcement should be armed."

Jose Luis Pineyro, an expert on the drugs war from Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University, said officials would probably pressure Calderon behind the scenes to let U.S. agents carry weapons in Mexico and pursue suspects across the border.

"But of course this won't work unless there's a reciprocal agreement," Pineyro said. "Demand for drugs is driven by the United States, the United States sell arms across the border, and the people die in Mexico."

With Obama's administration sidetracked by unrest in the Middle East and fighting to avoid cuts in federal spending demanded by Republican opposition, Calderon faces an uphill battle to exact fresh pledges from his northern neighbor.

"It's a terrible time for Mexico to try and make headway with the U.S.," said Grayson. "The White House is mesmerized by what's happening in Libya, Bahrain and Egypt at the moment." (Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Doug Palmer and Jeff Mason in Washington, Editing by Kieran Murray)

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