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Sights low for Bush's Mexico trip

The U.S. leader is not able to deliver much, observers say; Calderon knows U.S. Congress is key to any migrant law.

March 13, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MERIDA, MEXICO — As President Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon spend today getting to know each other, they'll find much in common.

Both are free-market conservatives who believe jobs drive progress. Both were thrust by circumstance into the role of law-and-order president: Bush by the U.S.-led war on terrorism; Calderon, the war on drugs. And both men want new laws giving millions of Mexicans in the United States a shot at legal status.

But this first date, which includes a tour of the Uxmal pyramids, isn't likely to spark fireworks. Mexico is already one of Bush's strongest Latin American allies, and the truth is the U.S. president can't deliver much more than pleasantries and a pat on the back.

"With Iraq, the Libby verdict, Bush is probably grateful to get out of the country," said Ana Maria Salazar, a political analyst in Mexico City and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for drug enforcement. "They'll talk about security issues, but not much is going to come out of this trip."

What Calderon really wants for his country is an immigration accord, which only the U.S. Congress can approve, and more good-paying jobs, which only investment and a growing economy can provide. So he probably won't make the same mistake as his predecessor, Vicente Fox: expecting too much of his U.S. neighbor.

Fox and Bush hit it off right away and Mexico awaited an immigration accord soon after a meeting between the two presidents in late summer 2001. But Sept. 11 permanently shifted White House attention to the Middle East.

So Calderon has kept expectations low. He's said very little beyond a few scattered comments. He decided against playing host to Bush in the nation's capital, where protesters angry over Calderon's victory last summer set up camp on the main boulevard.

"I believe Mexican and U.S. public policy -- and this is what I will raise with President Bush during his visit -- should be built on positive actions," he said last month during a speech in the state of Zacatecas. "We have to consider what constitutes a solid, beneficial relationship for both countries, and not what divides our people."

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Taking on smugglers

Calderon has had his hands full since taking office in December after scoring a razor-thin victory over his leftist opponent. He's taken on the country's drug smugglers, winning White House kudos and domestic popularity.

Killings among rival drug cartels last year spread to police and government officials, prompting Calderon to act. He's since sent the Mexican military to a quarter of the country, where soldiers have expanded roadside searches and burned marijuana fields.

Calderon is seeking congressional approval to merge various federal police departments into a single agency. More important, he wants to create a national crime database that would allow law enforcement for the first time to have a reliable inventory of local, state and federal crimes and their perpetrators.

In January, Calderon turned over to U.S. authorities Mexico's top narcotics criminal to face trial on trafficking charges in Houston, signaling a new era in trans-border cooperation. Bush telephoned Calderon to say thanks.

But while Mexico appears to be doing its part, the Iraq war has diminished key U.S. military air and ocean surveillance on the Pacific and Gulf coasts, making it easier for large shipments to reach Mexico and Central America en route to U.S. markets.

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Drugs and immigration

In an interview with the foreign press in Washington last week, Bush said that regarding the war against narco-traffickers, "the first thing the United States can do is to convince our people to stop using drugs."

Bush went on to say that immigration reform, by reducing the number of people sneaking over the border, would make it easier for authorities to concentrate on those smuggling drugs and weapons.

Both strategies seem unlikely in the short-term, analysts say.

"Even though Bush has good intentions, U.S. resources are depleted economically and politically," said Julie Sweig, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Calderon should try to extract as much as possible, but that may be just words of praise, or some attention and momentum toward immigration reform."

Protesters began gathering last week at rallies advertised by "wanted" posters featuring mug shots of Bush. But crowds were sparse, in contrast with the rallies held last summer by leftists contesting Calderon's victory.

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Protesters outside hotel

On Monday, a couple of hundred protesters marched in front of the 10-foot-tall metal fences erected outside the Hyatt hotel where Bush is expected to stay. Several signs altered Bush's name to a scatological reference, and said "Go Home." Another read, "Bush: May the Children of Iraq Haunt You to Eternity."

Bush shouldn't expect the same affectionate reception given former President Clinton, said Salazar, who worked for Clinton: "The war in Iraq, what's happening at the border, anti-immigrant sentiment, all that will be blamed on him. Plus, he's seen as a weak president."

Bush told foreign reporters that he planned to spend part of his Mexico visit being attentive to his host.

"As to President Calderon's next steps, that's up to him, and one purpose of my visit is to listen to his strategy," Bush said. "I have confidence that this man, elected by the people, will devise a strategy that is best for Mexico. And the role of the United States is not to devise a strategy, but to listen very carefully as to how we can help."

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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