Over the past six years, Mexico's annual homicide rate has more than doubled to some 20 murders per 100,000 people. The extent and brutality of the violence, fueled by drug trafficking and largely carried out by organized criminal gangs, has proven to be a particularly harrowing test for the two neighbors. Yet while security collaboration between the two countries is closer than ever, drug-related violence remains a major source of contention in the bilateral relationship. Many Mexicans blame their public security problems on America's voracious appetite for drugs, and see the U.S. commitment to finding a solution as half-hearted at best. They believe the United States is not doing nearly enough to reduce its demand for illicit drugs and curtail the flow of profits and arms to Mexican drug gangs. The United States has repeatedly acknowledged its shared responsibility for Mexico's crime and drug problems, and is working closely with the country's security forces to address them. But Washington has been slow to alter its basic prohibitionist and enforcement-focused approach to drug control.
The election-day referendums legalizing marijuana use in Colorado and Washington provide a new opportunity for the United States and Mexico to reduce current tensions and perhaps even resolve some of their differences over drug and security issues. When they meet, Obama and Peña Nieto should, at a minimum, set the stage for a significant and continuing bilateral discussion about alternative anti-drug policies. Mexico's outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, has consistently endorsed the search for fresh approaches, including a hard look at some legalization measures. Peña Nieto appears ready to modify the country's security approach by, among other things, focusing on violence reduction and deemphasizing drug interdiction.
For its part, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to indulge a discussion of new policies and has declared that the United States is no longer fighting a "war on drugs." But it has not yet seriously pursued other options. Indeed, it is unclear how tolerant the administration will be of marijuana use in Colorado and Washington. Still, it would make a good deal of sense for the U.S. and Mexican governments to begin a systematic exploration of alternative drug strategies, including a study of the likely security and health consequences of different approaches to marijuana legalization.
It has now become routine for Mexican presidents-elect, in advance of their inaugurations, to travel to Washington to meet with their U.S. counterpart -- a powerful symbol of the close and important relationship between the two countries. This week's conversation, however, should emphasize substance, not symbols. The key role that Latino voters played in the U.S. election has pushed immigration policy to the top of the U.S. political agenda, while Peña Nieto has consistently highlighted his commitment to energy reform since his electoral victory in July. And both presidents have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the war on drugs has been conducted.
Success will not come easy on any of these issues; it has been decades since even modest headway was made on any of them. But the shifting political climate in both countries has now paved the way for change. If they take advantage of that opening this week, the U.S. and Mexican presidents will have four full years to work together and make it happen.