President Obama arrived last night in Los Cabos, Mexico, for the G-20 Summit, where he and other world leaders will spend today and tomorrow discussing how to address the European economic crisis.
Outside the security-heavy convention center, a different crisis is raging. In January, the Mexican government announced that 47,515 had been killed in drug-related violence since the start of President Felipe Calderon's term in late 2006. (The data counted deaths only through September; it is widely expected that the figure will hit 60,000 by the end of Calderon's term in December.) In 2011, there was a drug war-related death in Mexico roughly every half hour.
Violence has been surging in the country in recent days ahead of coming presidential elections. A video last week showed police officers removing men from a hotel; the men showed up dead the following day, and the officers are accused of acting on behalf of drug carters. On Thursday, the body of reporter Victor Baez turned up in Veracruz in what the Los Angeles Times reports is the eighth killing of a journalist in that state alone. Amid Calderon's military-style offensive against the cartels, violence has come to regions once considered safe, like Guadalajara and the Mexico City region. In May, three top-ranked Army generals were detained over possible links to the cartels; it was recently discovered that drug money has been laundered through a U.S. horse breeding operation.
Despite the proximity and severity of the violence, President Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have spent relatively little time discussing the drug war in Mexico. While Mr. Obama discussed Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria during his January State of the Union address, he did not touch on the violence in Mexico and the rest of Central America. (Honduras and El Salvador have also been hard hit.) In March, then-Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum
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Romney, whose father George was born in Mexico, has talked about securing the southern border - which would include against drug trafficking - but he has rarely discussed the violence raging on the other side of it.
Romney's most substantial comments on the violence came at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in January, where Romney pointed to Puerto Rico as a trafficking hub and vowed to "form a hemispheric task force, bringing nations together that are willing to become part of this to look at these issues." He also said that young Americans need to "understand if they take one of these drugs that are being smuggled into this country they are partially responsible for deaths."
"I want them to understand the tens of thousands of people who are being killed by virtue of drug use in this country," he said. "It's time for the United States of America to take responsibility for the pain and suffering and torture and murder that's going on throughout Latin America. We are not a good example in that regard and that must change. If I'm president, I will campaign in a very aggressive way to our young people, 'Stop taking drugs because you're killing people.'"
In April, Mr. Obama vowed closer cooperation with Mexico to fight the drug trade and also acknowledged the role of U.S. demand in fueling the violence. With Calderon calling for tighter U.S. gun laws, Mr. Obama added that "we have a responsibility to make sure not only guns but also bulk cash isn't flowing into Mexico." In January, the U.S. government had revealed that between 2006 and 2011 the U.S. government had been allowing gun traffickers to purchase guns and send them to Mexico in an effort to track them. The effort, which was designed to ultimately stem the flow of firearms, has come under heavy criticism in both countries.
Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America Studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Obama's administration has been engaged with the drug violence south of the border despite the fact that the president rarely discusses it.
"We have seen since the start of Calderon's administration an increasing closeness between the U.S. and Mexico on security," she said, arguing that there has been "a sea change in the amount of cooperation" between the two countries in recent years.
She points to an agreement between the United States, Mexico and other Central American countries called the Merida Initiative, which is designed to combat the cartels. The agreement has meant $1.4 billion in U.S. aid flowing to Mexico for things like police training, improving the judicial system and law enforcement tools like helicopters and speedboats. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, and the focus was broadened under Mr. Obama.
O'Neil acknowledges that U.S. security aid to Mexico "pales in comparison" to what the United States sends to Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other countries. But she is optimistic about the future despite the relative lack of discussion of the issue from the leading U.S. presidential candidates.
"There is a good chance Mexico can bring down this violence," she said, "but there are a lot of pieces that have to come together."