U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) prepares for a news conference in Mexico… (Alexandre Meneghini /Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — After a closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto here Friday, Republican Sen. John McCain said he was "convinced" that the new leader was "committed to taking action against the drug cartels."
McCain also noted that Peña Nieto, in deference to U.S. sovereignty, appears determined to stay on the sidelines as the U.S. Congress debates immigration policy changes that could affect millions of Mexicans.
The vote of confidence in Peña Nieto on the security front was significant, coming from an influential member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
Beginning in fiscal 2008, Congress appropriated $1.6 billion to help Mexico fight its organized crime cartels. Since Peña Nieto took office Dec. 1, however, observers in both countries have been trying to gauge his government's willingness to maintain the high level of security cooperation between the United States and Mexico.
Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party is widely believed to have cut deals with drug lords in past decades, when it ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century. More recently, his Cabinet members have criticized the so-called kingpin strategy of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, that targets major drug capos and was developed and carried out with U.S. support.
In February 2012, when Peña Nieto was one of three major presidential candidates, McCain said in a committee hearing that "one of the candidates" may not be committed to the campaign against the cartels, but he did not specify whom he was referring to. In a statement Friday, Peña Nieto's office said the president remained committed to "bilateral cooperation" on security matters.
At a news conference after his meeting Friday with Peña Nieto, McCain said they had a substantive discussion about the immigration policy debate in Washington. But the Arizona senator, who supports a controversial pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S., was vague about the details of his talk with the Mexican president on the matter.
"I think the president very appropriately began our conversation by saying he doesn't want to tell the U.S. Congress what they should do," McCain said. He said that Peña Nieto was concerned about his country's vast and largely unpoliced southern border with Guatemala, where drugs and illegal immigrants typically cross freely.
Recent polls of U.S. voters give a less-than-clear picture of support for proposals to overhaul immigration policy, but the idea of granting a path to citizenship remains unpopular among many conservatives. A Bloomberg poll found that 53% of Americans support a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants. A majority of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday, however, said they wanted most or all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to be deported.
In a widely reported incident Tuesday, McCain engaged in a heated exchange with voters in Arizona angry about illegal immigration. Still, he said Friday, "I've seen a shift in attitude, a realization that we can't forever have 11 million people living in the shadows."