Obama meets with Calderon at critical juncture in U.S.-Mexican relations

President Obama, Mexican President Calderon speak after WH meeting
Obama, Calderon
President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon take part in a joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 19, 2010.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

U.S.-Mexican relations are at a low point as President Obama prepares to welcome Mexican President Felipe Calderon to the White House today.

The recent murder of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata and the wounding of a second officer in northern Mexico dramatically added to already growing concerns about drug violence. Mexican authorities have arrested 11 people in connection with the attack. U.S. law enforcement officials determined the gun used to kill the agent was purchased by a Texas man who faces weapons charges.

Calderon is expected to use the meeting to again protest the north-of-the-border demand for drugs and the flow of guns into Mexico. The Mexican leader told the newspaper El Universal, "As far as reducing the demand for drugs, they haven't done so. As far as reducing the flow of arms, they haven't. It has increased."

Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, told CBS Radio News there is "no easy solution" to the cross-border tensions. O'Neil believes the summit "is actually an opportunity for the two presidents at the highest levels to come together to talk through some of these differences and grievances, some of these tensions that have developed and defuse them." But she noted, "a lot of the issues and things Mexico needs to do to quell the violence have to do with establishing much stronger and cleaner court systems and police forces, and those things cannot be done overnight."

The relentless violence has seen the powerful drug cartels fight each other even as they battle the Mexican military, police and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Defeat of the cartels is Calderon's top priority. Nearly 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since the Mexican leader ordered a military offensive against criminal gangs shortly after taking office in 2006.

But a longtime observer of the situation says the cartels are winning the war. Ronald Marks, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, says the gangs are "looking to neutralize the (Mexican) government and create effectively a lawless state in the areas that they're working in." The former CIA officer told CBS News, "Mexico is in a downward spiral." He said the drug lords "have the capability to intimidate in the long term, and they certainly have the money to bribe people.

While in Washington, Calderon will also have a crucial meeting with House Speaker John Boehner. The Mexican president is expected to defend the next phase of the nearly $1.5 billion U.S. anti-drug aid known as the "Merida Initiative."

Mexico is also concerned about anti-immigration efforts in the U.S. The Mexican Senate urged Calderon to use his visit to voice strong opposition to proposals that would deny citizenship to children born to undocumented migrants in the U.S.

As always, the stakes in the U.S.-Mexican relationship go beyond the drug war, immigration and border security concerns. Mexico is the second-largest customer for U.S. exports. More than 30 million Americans claim Mexican ancestry.

As policy expert O'Neill noted, "What happens is vital, not just along the border but throughout the United States, so it's important that we do get it (the relationship) back on a good track."

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    Peter Maer is a CBS News White House Correspondent.