WASHINGTON, March 3, 2011— -- Four years after Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an aggressive campaign against the drug cartels in his country, an estimated 35,000 people have died from the fighting, including more than 2,000 law enforcement officers, and there are no signs the violence has abated.
The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.
Despite a renewed sense of urgency to bring the situation under control, however, neither President Obama nor congressional leaders seem prepared to offer more than reassurances to Calderon and Mexico to stay the course on a bloody campaign that's largely their own.
"We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," Obama said at a news conference today. "We have to take responsibility just as he's taken responsibility."
But the president announced no new steps to curb more aggressively Americans' drug addiction, which creates a lucrative market for cartels, or tighten U.S. gun laws, which provide easy access to weapons for their members.
"How long are we going to allow Mexicans to be murdered, and now Americans as well?" a member of the Mexican media asked Obama.
Obama said the United States is putting "unprecedented pressure" on the cartels but that more must be done.
"We are trying to work our way through more effective enforcement mechanisms," he said. But "we recognize that it's not enough and we have to do more."
The United States is the top consumer of Mexican heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. And as much as 90 percent of all cocaine sold in the United States enters the country through Mexico, the State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs recently reported.
"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on an early trip to Mexico City in 2009. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians."
The lapse of the U.S. assault weapons ban in 2004 has made it easier for weapons smugglers to obtain and traffick dangerous guns south of the border, critics say. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has reported that 90 percent of guns recovered in Mexico have ties to initial sales in the United States.
The gun used to kill U.S. special agent Jaime Zapata last month was first purchased in Texas, ICE officials confirmed this week. And the AK-47 that killed Border Agent Brian Terry in Arizona in December had ties to an Arizona dealer, officials say.
Mexico Shares Blame for Internal Violence
Calderon had been sharply critical of the Obama administration ahead of today's meeting, suggesting that the United States has not fulfilled its responsibility for helping to curtail the violence.
"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," Calderon said last week in an interview with the newspaper El Universal. "Institutional cooperation has been notoriously insufficient."
But, experts say, given the political climate in Washington, including widespread concerns about the federal deficit and a conservative GOP majority in the House, there is little chance U.S. policy will change.
"Unfortunately, on a lot of these issues there is very little President Obama can deliver," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations and counter-narcotics policy at the Brookings Institution. "Calderon can complain, but the reality is that fixing this will take a long time."
Felbab-Brown said the United States should not receive a significant portion of the blame for the growing violence south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Ten years ago, Mexico was not this violent, though demand for drugs was greater and weapons were flowing south," she said. "At the core of this war is the collapse and hollowing out of Mexico's law enforcement. Calderon started a full blown, all out effort against the cartels without having the tools for it."
The United States has pledged $1.4 billion to support Mexico's efforts to combat drug cartels. Obama today said the administration is seeking to expedite implementation of that agreement.
The president's budget, released last month, also allocates $10 billion for reducing drug consumption in the United States.
"Drug use in America drives crime, violence, addiction, and instability throughout our nation and our hemisphere," White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday.
"As a major drug-consumption nation, we recognize that we have a responsibility to drive down our demand for drugs here at home to ensure the health and safety of our citizens and to support the brave efforts of President Calderon and our foreign partners in their courageous efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations."