Shifts from drug war to economy

In February 2009, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. declared that international drug trafficking posed _a sustained, serious threat_ to Americans. Two months later, President Obama, in his first visit as president to Mexico, made it clear that no issue dominated relations between the two countries more, saying drug cartels there were _sowing chaos in our communities._

Last week, Mr. Obama returned to capitals in Latin America with a vastly different message. Relationships with countries racked by drug violence and organized crime should focus more on economic development and less on the endless battles against drug traffickers and organized crime capos that have left few clear victors. The countries, Mexico in particular, need to set their own course on security, with the United States playing more of a backing role.

That approach runs the risk of being seen as kowtowing to governments more concerned about their public image than the underlying problems tarnishing it.

Mexico, which is eager to play up its economic growth, has mounted an aggressive effort to play down its crime problems, going as far as to encourage the news media to avoid certain slang words in reports.

_The problem will not just go away,_ said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. _It needs to be tackled head-on, with a comprehensive strategy that includes but goes beyond stimulating economic growth and alleviating poverty.

_Obama becomes vulnerable to the charge of downplaying the region_s overriding issue, and the chief obstacle to economic progress,_ he added. _It is fine to change the narrative from security to economics as long as the reality on the ground reflects and fits with the new story line._

Administration officials insist that Mr. Obama remains cleareyed about the security challenges, but the new emphasis corresponds with a change in focus by the Mexican government. The new Mexican president, Enrique Pe__a Nieto, took office in December vowing to reduce the violence that exploded under the militarized approach to the drug war adopted by his predecessor, Felipe Calder__n. That effort left about 60,000 Mexicans dead and appears not to have significantly damaged the drug-trafficking industry.

In addition to a focus on reducing violence, which some critics have interpreted as taking a softer line on the drug gangs, Mr. Pe__a Nieto has also moved to reduce American involvement in law enforcement south of the border. With friction and mistrust between American and Mexican law enforcement agencies growing, Mr. Obama suggested that the United States would no longer seek to dominate the security agenda.

_It is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations, including the United States,_ he said, standing next to Mr. Pe__a Nieto on Thursday in Mexico City. _But the main point I made to the president is that we support the Mexican government_s focus on reducing violence, and we look forward to continuing our good cooperation in any way that the Mexican government deems appropriate._

In some ways, conceding leadership of the drug fight to Mexico hews to a guiding principle of Mr. Obama_s foreign policy, in which American supremacy is played down, at least publicly, in favor of a multilateral approach.

But that philosophy could collide with the concerns of lawmakers in Washington, who have expressed frustration with what they see as a lack of clarity in Mexico_s security plans. And security analysts say the entrenched corruption in Mexican law enforcement has long clouded the partnership with their American counterparts.

Putting Mexico in the driver_s seat on security marks a shift in a balance of power that has always tipped to the United States and, analysts said, will carry political risk as Congress negotiates an immigration bill that is expected to include provisions for tighter border security.

_If there is a perception in the U.S. Congress that security cooperation is weakening, that could play into the hands of those who oppose immigration reform,_ said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

_Realistically, the border is as tight as could be and there have been few spillovers of the violence from Mexico into the U.S.,_ she added, but perceptions count in Washington _and can be easily distorted._

_Drugs today are not very important to the U.S. public over all,_ she added, _but they are important to committed drug warriors who are politically powerful._

Representative Michael T. McCaul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has warned against the danger of drug cartels forming alliances with terrorist groups. _While these threats exist, you would be surprised to find that the administration thinks its work here is done,_ he wrote in an opinion article for Roll Call last month, pressing for more border controls in the bill.

The Obama administration has said any evidence of such cooperation is very thin, but even without terrorist connections, drug gangs pose threats to peace and security.

Human rights advocates said they feared the United States would ease pressure on Mexico to investigate disappearances and other abuses at the hands of the police and military, who have received substantial American support.

The shift in approach _suggests that the Obama administration either doesn_t object to these abusive practices or is only willing to raise such concerns when it_s politically convenient,_ said Jos__ Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch_s Americas division.

Still, administration officials have said there may have been an overemphasis on the bellicose language and high-profile hunts for cartel leaders while the real problem of lawlessness worsens.

American antidrug aid is shifting more toward training police and shoring up judicial systems that have allowed criminals to kill with impunity in Mexico and Central America.

United States officials said Mr. Obama remains well aware of the region_s problems with security, even as he is determined that they not overshadow the economic opportunities.

It is clear Mr. Obama, whatever his words four years ago, now believes there has been too much security talk.

In a speech to Mexican students on Friday, Mr. Obama urged people in the two countries to look beyond a one-dimensional focus on what he called real security concerns, saying it is _time for us to put the old mind-sets aside._ And he repeated the theme later in the day in Costa Rica, lamenting that when it comes to the United States and Central America, _so much of the focus ends up being on security._

_We also have to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don_t see a brighter future ahead,_ Mr. Obama said in a news conference with Laura Chinchilla, the president of Costa Rica.


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