Obama heads to Mexico

April 16, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Apr 16 – US President Barack Obama travels to Mexico City on Thursday, as his administration steps up efforts to tackle Mexico’s vicious drug war which has threatened to spill across the US border.

The visit will be Obama’s first to Latin America since taking office in January and will include talks with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon.

It comes on the back of a wave of high-level US visits south of the border, which have marked a shift in the US stance toward Mexico’s drug cartel problem.

Analysts say Obama has been more willing than his predecessor George W. Bush to acknowledge that — as the world’s largest consumer of cocaine — the US is jointly responsible for Mexican gang activity.

"For the first time in decades, the United States at the highest-ranking level has agreed to recognize co-responsibility in the drug trade," said Rosanna Fuentes-Berain, editor of the Spanish edition of Foreign Affairs

Last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that US demand for illegal drugs and its inability to prevent illicit weapons and cash from being smuggled into Mexico had contributed to violence which killed nearly 7,000 there since early 2008.

The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimates that around 90 percent of weapons confiscated in Mexico come from the United States.

On the eve of his visit, Obama slapped sanctions on three drug cartels and named a top US official to stiffen enforcement on the southern US border.

The administration said the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, and La Familia Michoacana, would be censured under legislation known as the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

The act allows the Treasury Department to block or seize any assets under US jurisdiction from the cartels or anyone who is acting on their behalf.

Mexican President Calderon — who has gambled his presidency on the battle against drug trafficking with the deployment of more than 36,000 troops — has praised the "constructive attitude" of the Obama administration.

But the two men will also face difficult talks on trade, the economic crisis and immigration.

Trade relations have been tense since Mexico last month slapped some 2.4 billion dollars in tariffs on 89 US products, after Washington cancelled a program authorizing some Mexican trucks to operate in the United States.

The US move violated the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexico’s retaliation sparked a first trade challenge for Obama, with more than 150 industrial giants calling for an end to the spat.

Immigration reform is also on the agenda of the visit.

Obama is expected to draft legislation later this year allowing illegal immigrants to become legal citizens in a major overhaul of the US immigration system, which would clearly impact Mexicans, the largest immigrant group in the country.

The US president is due to travel from Mexico to Trinidad and Tobago for a first summit with Latin American leaders on April 17.

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