A war they can win?


MEXICO CITY — One Mexican columnist joked that the meeting between President Barack Obama and President Felipe Calderon in the palace gardens looked like an English wedding —with Janet Napolitano as the maid of honor.

Another political cartoonist poked fun at Obama and Calderon standing shoulder to shoulder against the drug cartels — with the illustration showing the shoulders of the tall thin American president towering a foot above those of his stout Mexican counterpart.

But amid the mirth, the headline of the tabloid La Prensa perhaps best summed up the thought on the minds of many Mexican observers: “A Ver Si Pueden!” or “Let’s See if They Can Do It!”

The Prensa front page referred to the immense difficulty in fighting the sprawling Mexican crime organizations — a battle that Obama has now claimed as his own.

In his first official visit to Mexico on Thursday and Friday, Obama made a deeper commitment than any previous American president to fighting the cartels while both leaders called it “a new era” in the U.S.-Mexico partnership.

“Something that Calderon and I recognize is that you can’t fight this war with just one hand,” Obama said at a news conference, pulling his hand up in a punching action. “You can’t just have Mexico making an effort and the United States not making an effort and the same is true on the other side.”

Obama said he is backing up the Calderon government with resources that will be worth billions of dollars over several years as well as reiterating the commitment to mobilize more American agents on both sides of the border.

But while welcoming the fact the U.S. has accepted its responsibility in the drug war, many here are cynical about how much difference the American president can make in a battle that has proven to be such a quagmire for the Mexican administration.

“This is not just about drugs. This conflict is about deep structural problems in Mexico such as corruption,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, who runs the Binational Center for Human Rights in the bloody border city of Tijuana. “These are our problems and Obama cannot help us with them, however much hardware he sends. We have to make changes here.”

When Calderon took power in December 2006 and mobilized the Mexican army from mountain villages to bullet-ridden barrios, he stated his aim as restoring the power of the state in areas that had become effectively lawless.

But the surge of troops only seemed to spark more bloodshed and last year was the most violent in Mexico in recent years, with more than 6,000 drug-related killings across the nation.

In the first three months of 2009 there have been 1,960 drug-related slayings — a slight decrease compared to the tragic last quarter of 2008 but still an astounding body count.

Now almost two and a half years after taking office, Calderon used the joint press conference with Obama to reiterate the same objective as when he began his presidency.

“We are aiming to recuperate the security and tranquility above all in those zones that have been most hit, most affected by the criminals,” he said. “It is not an easy task and the time frame can be varied.”

The Mexican president said this goal was the first of a three-part strategy — with the second part being to get the army off the street and replace it with an honest police force and the third part being the radical overhaul of the entire justice system.

However, with almost half of his six-year term gone, many question whether the Calderon administration will ever see the soldiers back in the barracks.

Obama added his own terms to define victory.

“What is a realistic effort is to reduce it so significantly, so drastically that it becomes once again a localized criminal problem as opposed to a major structural problem that threatens stability, that increases corruption and threatens the rule of law,” he said.

With the Mexican cartel armies still having tens of thousands of men at arms and making an estimated $30 billion trafficking drugs into the United States, such a goal could prove very tough for Obama to achieve in his time in office.

One oft-quoted story in the Mexican news magazine Proceso said the drug war had become “Calderon’s Iraq” — a conflict that the president cannot win but cannot pull out of either.

Obama is rapidly making this his own war to win or lose as well.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Mexico:

Sizing up Mexico's war on drugs

Trouble on the US-Mexico border