First ladies of Mexico and US press for social improvements that could solve bigger problems

Thursday, April 15, 2010

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Their presidential husbands establish official policy and formally pledge bilateral cooperation, but first ladies are often the ones who can most effectively draw attention to issues, Mexico's first lady said Thursday.

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Their presidential husbands establish official policy and formally pledge bilateral cooperation, but first ladies are often the ones who can most effectively draw attention to issues, Mexico's first lady said Thursday.

Margarita Zavala spent three days visiting schools and museums in Mexico City with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama. While they weren't talking about Mexico's rampant drug violence or the 275,000 Mexicans deported from the U.S. last year, it was clear the children and family programs they highlighted could help resolve such grim and entrenched problems.

"There are some issues which we (the first ladies) are freer to choose to address, like working with children and young people," Zavala told The Associated Press during an exclusive interview at the presidential residence.

Nearly 23,000 people have been killed in increasingly brutal drug-gang violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and promptly deployed more than 45,000 soldiers to battle the drug cartels. The troops have taken out several top drug traffickers — only to see new drug bosses quickly take their places.

The U.S. has supported the effort, providing helicopters, dogs, surveillance gear and other law-enforcement support through the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative.

Critics say the army-led offensive is only fueling the war. For them, the real solution would be to reduce the heavy demand for drugs in the U.S. while stimulating the Mexican economy to provide other opportunities for would-be drug traffickers.

As the first ladies were meeting Wednesday night, six people were killed — including a mother and her 8-year-old child, a taxi driver and a federal police officer — and five wounded during an apparently drug-related gunbattle on the main boulevard of the Pacific coast resort city of Acapulco.

President Barack Obama and his top Cabinet officials have repeatedly visited Mexico to underscore their shared responsibility for violence stemming from drug trafficking, but Michelle Obama and Zavala are pressing for social programs that, in the end, may present more subtle and effective solutions.

"Attending to the lack of educational and employment opportunities in Mexico would be important measures to stem immigration and the number of young people that enter into the drug trade," said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy in the region.

Meyer said key elements of violence-prevention programs include items the first ladies have pressed for: providing alternative educational and recreational opportunities, counseling services and job training for young people.

"If young people don't have an alternative in their lives, whatever country they're in, they're going to choose drugs, they're going to choose (the) drug trade. That's the way they make money," Michelle Obama remarked after a speech to several thousand young people during her first international trip alone as first lady.

Beyond their shared ideals, Zavala and Michelle Obama also appear to be developing a strong personal friendship — the two laughed together and chatted cheerfully at various events.

"We are both convinced that the more we can pursue this friendship, the better it will be for the relationship between our people," Zavala told the AP.

Finding common ground has been easy for the two women: They're both well-educated lawyers who left their professional lives to back their husband's political careers and raise their young children. The Obamas have two daughters: Sasha, 8, and Malia, 11. Zavala and Calderon have three children: Maria, 13; Luis Felipe, 10; and Juan Pablo, 7.

"Of course we talk about professional issues, but we also talk about how we help our children cope," Zavala said. "We both consider stability in our family as essential, both for the family and for the president."

Family stability and positive opportunities for young people are the messages that both first ladies stressed during Michelle Obama's two-day visit to Mexico.

Since her husband took office, Zavala has been advocating for improvements in the plight of thousands of Mexican children who immigrate alone to the U.S. in search of their parents. She says about 50,000 children are deported back to Mexico every year, including 22,000 who traveled unaccompanied by adults. Some never find their parents, she said.

In recent months, Zavala also has joined Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity, while Obama has advocated for strengthening opportunities for Mexican children.

"The social dimension of the relationship, vital between two societies that are so deeply intertwined, has largely been absent in the political discussions between the governments, so the first ladies are helping put that on the agenda," said Andrew Selee, who directs the nonprofit Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

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