Acknowledging a Mexican drug war that is "sowing chaos in our communities," President Barack Obama signaled Thursday he will not seek the reinstatement of a U.S. assault weapons ban but instead step up enforcement of existing laws against taking such weapons across the border.
Despite a campaign promise to see the lapsed ban renewed, Obama was bowing to the reality that to do so would be unpopular in politically key U.S. states and among Republicans as well as some conservative Democrats.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, conducting an aggressive fight against drug cartels, had hoped to persuade Obama to push the reinstatement.
Obama, on a swift visit here meant to bolster Calderon in his drug fight, countered the disappointment for his Mexican host with a pledge to push Congress to finally act on an inter-American weapons treaty that has languished in the Senate since 1998. He said he is asking Congress to provide money for Black Hawk helicopters and surveillance equipment Mexico has long sought for its drug war.
"We are absolutely committed to working in partnership with Mexico to make sure that we are dealing with this scourge on both sides of the border," Obama said after meeting with Calderon.
"You can't fight this war with just one hand," he said. "You can't have Mexico making an effort and the United States not making an effort."
Obama's meetings with Calderon also spanned the economic crisis, immigration and clean energy.
But the escalating drug fight in Mexico, which is spilling over into the United States and alarming border communities, was the dominant topic.
Calderon welcomed Obama to the presidential residence, Los Pinos, with an acknowledgment of the challenges: "My country is immersed in a historic transformation process. We live a robust democracy, which is also plural. We're also facing firmly the costs of the struggles in order to turn Mexico into a safer country."
He cited a visit a half-century ago by President John F. Kennedy in calling for a new era of cooperation between the countries.
"We will recognize that in order to grow and prosper, Mexico needs the United States investment and the United States of America needs the strength of the Mexican labor force," Calderon said.
The Justice Department says Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.
The Organization of American States adopted the weapons treaty in 1997 as a way to curtail dealing in illicit firearms throughout Latin America. Since then, 33 countries have signed the treaty, and 24 have ratified it. Former President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on Nov. 14, 1997, one day after it was endorsed by the OAS.
The Clinton administration submitted the 13-page treaty to the Senate for ratification the following year, but it has languished in the Foreign Relations Committee without action since then.
Shootout claims 16 livesAhead of Obama's arrival a shootout between Mexican troops and a convoy of gunmen left 15 assailants and one soldier dead hours before President Barack Obama arrived in the country to show his support for the fight against drug cartels.
The shootout happened in a remote, mountainous region in Guerrero state, where the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco is located, Mexico's Defense Department said in a statement Thursday.
Soldiers came under fire from a convoy of gunmen on Wednesday while patrolling the drug trafficking hotbed. One was killed and another wounded in the battle near the town of San Nicolas del Oro. Troops later seized two .50 caliber Barrett rifles, 17 other rifles, eight grenades, two handguns, ammunition and eight vehicles.
The region is known for its crops of marijuana and poppy, which is used to make heroin.
The escalating drug fight in Mexico is spilling into the United States, and confronting Obama with an international crisis much closer than North Korea or Afghanistan. Mexico is the main hub for cocaine and other drugs entering the U.S., and the United States is the primary source of guns used in Mexico's drug-related killings.
Calderon's aggressive stand against drug cartels has won him the aid of the United States and the prominent political backing of Obama — never as evident as on Thursday, when the new president was to stand with Calderon in Mexico's capital city.
But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling on Air Force One that they shouldn't expect major announcements, calling the trip primarily one to re-engage the United States with Mexico.
"Re-engaging in the world is not necessarily simply a symbolic act," he said in response to a reporter's question. "I think it's understanding that we have valuable partners and mutual interests, and it's important that we show and — show that commitment and demonstrate it."
In Mexico City, heavily armed police have been patrolling a wealthy neighborhood where Obama will be staying.
During his visit of less than 24 hours, Obama's view will be limited to a helicopter ride over the city, the presidential residence and its surrounding upscale neighborhoods.
More than 3,000 city police are guarding the area, backed by more federal police and presidential guards.
The visit is triggering complaints about security measures that snarl traffic in the already congested capital of 20 million people.
As for the U.S. role, Obama said, "We are going to be dealing not only with drug interdiction coming north, but also working on helping to curb the flow of cash and guns going south."
'Not about pointing fingers'Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, meantime, said that consultations with Mexico on the drug problem are "not about pointing fingers, it's about solving a problem. What can we do to prevent the flow of guns and cash south that fuel these cartels."
Obama's visit, said senior foreign policy aide Denis McDonough, "is meant to send a signal of respect."
"It will do a great deal in terms of symbolism to raise the profile of the relationship in both cases," added Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Mexico is the only place Obama is visiting on his way this weekend to the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of Western Hemisphere nations.
On Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his nation will vote against the final summit declaration to protest what he said was U.S. meddling in the region.
In Mexico, more than 10,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Calderon's stepped-up effort against the cartels began in 2006. The State Department says contract killings and kidnappings on U.S. soil, carried out by Mexican drug cartels, are on the rise too.
A U.S. military report just five months ago raised the specter of Mexico collapsing into a failed state with its government under siege by gangs and drug cartels. It named only one other country in such a worst-case scenario: Pakistan. The assertion incensed Mexican officials; Obama's team disavowed it.
Indeed, the Obama administration has gone the other direction, showering attention on Mexico.
In words that resounded loudly in both countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Mexico City that the U.S. shared responsibility for the drug war. She said America's "insatiable demand" for illegal drugs fueled the trade and that the U.S. had an "inability" to stop weapons from being smuggled south.
Obama has dispatched hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, to the Southwest to help Mexico fight drug cartels. He sent Congress a war-spending request that made room for $350 million for security along the U.S.-Mexico border. He added three Mexican organizations to a list of suspected international drug kingpins. He dispatched three Cabinet secretaries to Mexico. And he just named a "border czar."
"This is something that we take very seriously, and we're going to continue to work on diligently," Obama said of the drug violence at a news conference last month. The Justice Department says such Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.
The White House is vowing more enforcement of gun laws. But it is not pursuing a promise Obama made as a candidate: a ban on assault-style weapons.
That ban on military-style guns became law during the Clinton administration in 1994 but expired under the Bush administration in 2004. When Attorney General Eric Holder raised the idea of reinstituting the ban this year, opposition from Democrats and Republicans emerged quickly.
'Other priorities'Reopening the debate on gun rights is apparently a fight the White House does not want to take on right now.
"I think that there are other priorities that the president has," Gibbs said this week.
Mexican leaders, though, say the ban saved lives. "I think it was very good legislation," Calderon told ABC News the day before Obama's arrival.
The swooning economy, blamed largely on failures inside the United States, has taken a huge toll on Mexico. About 80 percent of Mexico's exports — now in decline — go to the United States.
Obama and Calderon are likely to tout the value of that trade, but a spat between their countries remains unresolved. Mexico has raised tariffs on nearly 90 American products, a retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel access to Mexican truckers on U.S. highways despite the terms of a free trade agreement.
On immigration, Obama is expected to make clear he is committed to reforms. The effort is likely to start this year but won't move to the top of his agenda.