MEXICO CITY - Confronting a Mexican drug war that is "sowing chaos in our communities," President Barack Obama signaled Thursday he will not seek renewal of a U.S. assault weapons ban but instead will step up enforcement of laws banning the transfer of such guns across the border.
Obama had pledged during his campaign to seek renewal of the ban but has bowed to the reality that such a move would be unpopular in politically key U.S. states and among Republicans as well as some conservative Democrats.
Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has been conducting an aggressive fight against drug cartels and had hoped to persuade Obama to push for reinstatement of the gun ban. Obama arrived here on the first stop of a trip that will take him to a weekend Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, bringing together the leaders of 34 Western Hemisphere democracies.
Allies in the fight against drugs, Obama and Calderon took different stands on U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Calderon said the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo has not been successful in forcing Cuba to adopt democratic reforms.
"I share fully the idea we do not believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for things to change in Cuba," Calderon said. "On the contrary; the reality that we see there is that the reality has not changed."
Obama pointed to the announcement this week that the U.S. was softening sanctions, allowing Americans to make unlimited transfers of money and visits to relatives in Cuba. But he said Cuba needs to reciprocate with actions that are "grounded in respect for human rights."
Cuban President Raul Castro, attending meetings in Venezuela, said his government is willing to discuss "everything" with Washington — including human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press — as long as the discussion is "on equal terms." He did not specifically mention Obama's comments.
Obama acknowledged that the United States shares responsibility for bloodshed and kidnappings in Mexico that have spilled across the border into the United States. "I will not pretend this is Mexico's responsibility alone," Obama said.
"We have a responsibility as well, we have to do our part," Obama said. He said the U.S. must crack down on domestic drug use and the flow of weapons into Mexico.
Obama also said the United States and Mexico must work together to stem the problem of illegal immigration. He said he favors a more orderly process for immigrants who want to come to the United States and a pathway to legalization for those already in the U.S. illegally.
"My country has been greatly enriched by immigrants from Mexico," he said.
The two leaders also pledged to cooperate on combatting global warming and the global recession.
The U.S. ban on military-style assault weapons became law during the Clinton administration in 1994 and contributed to the Democrats' loss of Congress that year. It expired under the Bush administration in 2004. It had outlawed 19 types of weapons, banned certain features on firearms such as bayonet mounts, and limited ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
When Attorney General Eric Holder raised the idea of reinstituting the ban this year, opposition from Democrats and Republicans emerged quickly.
Calderon made more direction mention of the U.S. politics of the matter than Obama did.
"We know that it is a politically delicate topic because Americans truly appreciate their constitutional rights, and particularly those that are part of the Second Amendment," Calderon said.
Obama said he still believed that the ban "made sense" but pointedly added: "None of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy." He said he would focus instead on using existing laws to stop the flow of weapons to Mexico from the thousands of U.S. gun stores along the border.
"Now, are we going to eliminate all drug flows, are we going to eliminate all guns coming over the border?" Obama said. "That's not a realistic objective. What is a realistic objective is to reduce it so significantly, so drastically, that it becomes once again a localized criminal problem as opposed to a major structural problem that threatens stability in communities along those borders."
Obama also sought to put a focus on the more upbeat parts of the U.S.-Mexico relationship — such as shared commerce and culture — and not just the drug violence and immigration spats.
It was a theme he returned to on Thursday night at a dinner in his honor, held in an open-air courtyard of a Mexican museum.
"What makes us good neighbors is a simple truth, that our people share so much more than common challenges and common interests," Obama said. "We also share values and ideals."
Earlier, Calderon welcomed Obama to the presidential residence, Los Pinos, with an acknowledgment of the challenges: "My country is immersed in a historic transformation process. We live a robust democracy, which is also plural. We're also facing firmly the costs of the struggles in order to turn Mexico into a safer country."
Obama announced he would ask the Senate to ratify an inter-American weapons treaty meant to take on the bloody drug trade by restricting arms trafficking.
Just hours before Obama arrived in the country, a shootout between Mexican troops and a convoy of gunmen left 15 assailants and one soldier dead, Mexico's Defense Department said.
The Justice Department says Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.
The Organization of American States adopted the weapons treaty in 1997 as a way to curtail dealing in illicit firearms throughout Latin America. Since then, 34 countries have signed the treaty, and 29 have ratified it. Former President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on Nov. 14, 1997, one day after it was endorsed by the OAS, but it was never acted on.
Calderon's aggressive stand against drug cartels has won him the aid of the United States and the prominent political backing of Obama.
Mexico is the main hub for cocaine and other drugs entering the U.S., and the United States is the primary source of guns used in Mexico's drug-related killings.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence since Calderon's stepped-up effort against the cartels began in 2006. The State Department says contract killings and kidnappings on U.S. soil, carried out by Mexican drug cartels, are on the rise as well.
Obama has dispatched hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, to the Southwest to help Mexico fight drug cartels, among many other steps aimed at addressing the escalating drug war.