President Felipe Calderon said he supports enhancing protection for U.S. agents working in Mexico, but he stopped short of supporting an Obama administration push that would allow American agents to be armed as they conduct cross-border operations.
“The law does not allow agents of the United States or of any other country to take part in tasks involving enforcement in our territory,” Calderon said after meeting with President Obama on Thursday. “As a result, they cannot carry weapons or undertake operational tasks. Their functions, in line with our treaties, is limited to the exchange of information and technical assistance to support Mexican authorities in these tasks.”
The issue of arming U.S. agents has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the killing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata on a northern Mexico highway last month. Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the murder of Zapata and continued drug violence in Mexico may prompt the Obama administration to request a "different policy.''
At a joint White House news conference, Obama said he remains concerned about the safety of American agents but he’s “respectful of Mexico’s sovereignty.”
“I assure you that we will be examining all of our procedures and protocols in terms of how our agents travel throughout Mexico, and we'll be working in close contact with Mexican law enforcement, who I'm sure will have important advice in terms of how we operate in that region,” Obama said.
Unlike Calderon’s last visit to the White House in May, when U.S. immigration laws were at the forefront of discussions, much of Thursday's talks centered on U.S.-Mexico coordination in fighting violent drug cartels that are responsible for deaths on both sides of the border. Drug-related violence has killed 34,000 Mexicans since 2006.
Over the past two years, Obama has met with Mexico’s Calderon five times and has honored him with a State Dinner. He again praised the leader on Thursday as a courageous voice for his efforts to take on Mexican drug cartels.
In recent months, the relationship has been strained by the release of State Department cables by WikiLeaks that show U.S. diplomats blunt criticism of Calderon’s handling of the drug war and by Calderon’s frustration that the Obama administration is not doing enough to stem the flow of weapons into the Mexico from U.S. gun shops along the southwestern border.
But with Thursday’s visit, Obama seemed to be extending an olive branch.
“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. “We have to take responsibility just as he's taking responsibility.”
Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this article.