Calderon in D.C. and Mexico on the Brink

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These days, the topic of Colombia frequently comes up in conversation when speaking about Mexico and President Felipe Calderon’s battle with the drug cartels. More specifically, the Colombia of the ‘80s when drug lord Pablo Escobar wreaked havoc on the country, assassinating political candidates and blowing planes out of the sky.

“At least Mexico is not like that,” say many folks, trying to assuage their fears. “It could be worse.”

Last Friday it did get worse with the kidnapping of ex-presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos from his ranch in central Mexico. Fernandez, a powerful lawyer and kingmaker within President Calderon’s National Action Party has disappeared without a trace – no ransom letter, no communiqués from guerilla groups or the usual suspects.

Many Mexicans fear that a drug cartel kidnapped Fernandez. And if this is so, it means the drug war is inching toward the Colombian nightmare of the ‘80s. Other recent events also seem to support this notion. In Tamaulipas, bordering Texas, political candidates for the PAN and PRD say they won’t participate in the upcoming elections because of death threats from the cartels. Last week, gunmen killed a mayoral candidate for the PAN and his son in Valle Hermosa, after the candidate ignored warnings from the narcos to end his campaign.

The unrest and bloodshed in the north has begun to permeate Mexico City. Speaking with my friend the other night, she told me that a strange fear was in the air in Mexico City after Fernandez’s kidnapping. Even her four year-old daughter had picked up on the gloominess and asked “Are we at war?”

As the Fernandez kidnapping saga continues to unfold, Calderon will be in Washington D.C. on Wednesday to meet with President Obama. During this critical time in Mexico, Calderon needs Obama by his side to bolster his credentials back home. While in D.C., he’ll no doubt speak out against Arizona’s racial profiling bill and the anti-immigrant rhetoric roiling the U.S.’ mid-term election cycle. This will play well back home. The meeting will also give Obama a chance to connect with Latino voters here in the United States.

The primary discussion should focus though on how to prevent Mexico from turning into Pablo Escobar’s Colombia.

The Beyond Merida initiative is a good start. This is a four pillar plan that centers around disrupting and dismantling criminal organizations, bolstering the rule of law in Mexico, building a 21st century border and investing in social and economic programs in Mexico.

It’s about time the Obama Administration moved away from a solely law enforcement-based approach, which has done little to solve the problem. Instead, Obama seems to be moving toward a more multi-faceted solution.

While in Washington D.C. last week, I asked Andrew Selee, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, what he expected from Calderon’s visit.

Selee called it “a focusing moment” for the two countries. And a chance for both Presidents to play to their audiences back home. “Don’t expect a huge breakthrough,” he said. “But more of a chance to talk about the four pillar strategy (Beyond Merida).”

It would be notable if Obama announces real shifts in drug policy, he said.  “It’s something I would look for.”

It’s something I’ll be hoping for, because this would do more than any other policy to bring back Mexico from the brink of disaster. If there’s any doubt that our 40-year War on Drugs has been an abject failure read this story by the Associated Press.

There will be much discussion about the drug war, but my bet is that much of the media spotlight here will be on immigration.

Selee expects Calderon to speak out strongly against the Arizona law, though he doesn’t think most Mexicans see the Arizona law as a reflection of U.S. government policy. “They see it more as ‘crazy Arizona’,” he says.

He also doesn’t see any moves by the Obama Administration to reduce the  number of deportations under the recently expanded 287 (g). “If anything they will increase it,” he says. “There have been more deportations under the Obama administration than ever before. The administration wants to show they are tough on security and can secure the border,” he says.

And while both presidents play to their audiences at home this week, much is at stake for both countries in this meeting. And there’s no time to lose.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.