In Paris, a woman pushed through the crowd to kiss America's first black President. In London, the public celebrated how Barack Obama charmed a rare smile out of Queen Elizabeth II. In Istanbul, a fan claimed that the American head of state was a symbolic leader of Turkey. But right on the U.S. doorstep in Mexico City, Obama was surrounded by no throngs but only thousands of federal police and soldiers, including snipers overlooking the paths of his bulletproof limousine. Machine gun crews were stationed in front of his hotel.
The lack of celebration reflected genuine security concerns. Mexico has seen more than 800 police and soldiers shot dead, stabbed or even decapitated since January 2008 as well as a grenade attack on a U.S. consulate. The Mexican security forces and the entourage of Secret Service agents were taking no chances to allow Obama to even step on the streets of Mexico City. After flying by helicopter into a key military base, he stuck within a square mile of the presidential palace and was out of the country on Friday after less than 20 hours. (See behind the scenes pictures from President Obama's European journey.)
But whatever the reasons, the closed nature of his first stop in Latin America contributed to disappointed headlines in Mexican newspapers. "Obama Opens His Arms But Makes Little Commitment," rattled out the top-selling El Universal newspaper. "Lots of Praise, No Agreements," blared El Milenio. "Only Good Wishes in Calderon and Obama's Date," said the leftist La Jornada.
This cynicism focused on what was seen as a lack of any concrete measures from Obama despite his declaring a "new era in U.S.-Mexico relations" and saying he will stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the drug cartels. Particularly telling was Obama's admission that he will struggle to deliver on two key issues of major importance south of the border: the sale of U.S. assault weapons and immigration reform. The statements played into the hands of skeptics who argue that despite the more liberal face, it is still business as usual for the gringo colossus. "There were a lot of words and pats on the back," wrote political commentator Ciro Gomez Leyva. "It is not nothing, but neither does it amount to very much." (See pictures from Mexico's drug wars.)
U.S.-sold assault weapons including Kalashnikov and AR15 semi-automatic rifles are responsible for the vast majority of drug related killings in Mexico. With gangs of gunmen using them to spray hundreds of bullets at their targets in ambushes, the weapons are also linked to the deaths of more than 100 civilians last year, many of whom simply had the misfortune of driving or walking close to a hit. However, in 2004 a U.S. ban on sale of assault weapons was repealed and a 2008 Supreme Court decision reinforced the second amendment, making a future ban even more difficult.
"I have not backed off my belief that the assault weapons ban made sense... assault weapons, as we now know here in Mexico, are helping to fuel extraordinary violence," Obama said. "Having said that none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy." The President said that he would focus his efforts on getting lawmakers to approve a treaty against arms trafficking, which was signed by President Clinton in 1997 but has never been ratified by the Senate. However, American officials concede that the majority of weapons smuggled to Mexico are purchased by U.S. citizens in so called "straw purchases" in which people with clean records are paid to buy guns.
Asked when he would draft a new bill to allow Mexicans to work legally in the United States, Obama was also evasive. "I voted twice for comprehensive immigration reform that would have provided a pathway for legalization and improvement of the orderly path of migrants into the United States," he said. "We came close to getting that kind of a reform done several years ago and then it became politicized. My whole goal is to remove the politics out of this and take a very practical commonsense approach." An estimated six million of the 11 million Mexicans currently working in the United States have no papers. (See the Great Wall of America rising on the U.S.-Mexican border.)
However, Federico Estevez, a political analyst at the Mexico City's ITAM institute, said the cynicism of the press disguises a generally positive view of Obama in Mexico. "No one really expected major agreements to come out of this visit," he said. "It was about starting over again in bilateral relationship, getting a positive mood or tone going. Mexican people have now seen a U.S. leader who is more open to their concerns. He is generally well thought of here."