When U.S. President Barack Obama comes to Canada on his first foreign visit, he will likely raise an issue that would take most Canadians by surprise - the conflict between the drug cartels and the Mexican government.
Escalating violence and an increase in kidnappings has led some Mexicans to flee the country and join relatives in the United States. The discovery of $207-million (U.S.) in cash in a single Mexico City drug bust last year highlights the other side of the problem: the seemingly unlimited resources available to the drug cartels to corrupt public officials and democratic institutions on both sides of the border.
While presidents change, this North American problem remains and is important to Canada. There are more than 2,000 Canadian businesses operating in Mexico and more than one million Canadians visit annually. Our relationship with Mexico is also seen in the hemisphere as an important indicator of our willingness to reach beyond the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean.
Of more immediate concern, however, is that the fallout from the hemispheric drug trade is spreading inexorably northward, including growing connections between Latin American and Canadian gangs. Sooner or later, the problem will hit home - literally. Canada lacks significant firsthand experience in dealing with the drug conflict raging throughout the hemisphere. There is perhaps no better place for us to become seriously involved than by lending a hand to a friend and ally in Mexico and, in so doing, also helping ourselves.
So what can Canada do?
Firstly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can assure Mr. Obama of Canada's commitment to its bilateral relationships with both the United States and Mexico. And let's remember that given domestic political considerations, the United States sees its relationship with Mexico as more important. Any intimation that Canada is seeking to strengthen the U.S.-Canada relationship at the expense of our relationship with Mexico will, to put it mildly, not be seen as helpful. The Prime Minister may also mention that, given the situation in Mexico, now might not be the best time to tinker with NAFTA.
Canada can increase assistance to Mexico. The United States is investing $1.4-billion in the multiyear security Merida Initiative to support Mexican President Felipe Calderon's efforts against the drug cartels. But it is also channelling $28.9-million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to strengthen local institutions, justice systems and the rule of law.
Canadian assistance also cannot be driven solely by hard security concerns. We can offer large-scale funding to work with state and local officials in areas that are not the focus of the Merida Initiative, which also happen to be areas with significant Canadian visitors and investment. This will mean bringing in the Canadian International Development Agency. The RCMP, and perhaps provincial and municipal police forces, could offer technical assistance and work with their Mexican counterparts. To do this, the Mounties may have to scale back commitments elsewhere.
Finally, the United States has recently assigned 100 federal agents to Operation Gun Runner, to go after U.S. gun shops and so-called straw buyers along the Mexico-U.S. border. This is an unprecedented change in U.S. policy. Given that more than half the guns involved in Toronto homicides come from the United States, we should be taking part in this and pushing for a similar program along our border. We will have to become more serious, too, about reducing Canada's demand for illegal drugs.
Canadian support will not turn the tide in Mexico. However, a weak response will hurt not only our relationship with Mexico, but our relationship with the United States - and our reputation in the hemisphere as a trusted friend and capable ally.
Executive director of the Canadian Foundation of the Americas (FOCAL)