Obama imposes sanctions on Mexican drug cartels; China increases influence in Latin America.

Obama imposes sanctions on Mexican drug cartels; China increases influence in Latin America.

Obama imposes sanctions on Mexican drug cartels; China increases influence in Latin America.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 16 2009 6:56 AM

Taking on the Drug Cartels

The Washington Postleads with news that, on the eve of his visit to Mexico, President Obama imposed financial sanctions against three Mexican drug cartels by adding them to the list of foreign "drug kingpins." The move not only allows the government to seize the cartels' assets but also makes it easier to prosecute any American who provides support to the organizations. The Los Angeles Timesalso leads with Mexico but takes a look at how the country has quickly "arisen as a foreign policy emergency" for Obama, who is likely to face pressure from Mexican leaders to move beyond talk of friendship and provide concrete help in several areas that go beyond the drug war. The New York Timesleads with a look at how China is working hard to increase its influence in Latin America by offering much-needed capital to struggling countries in the region. After years of being ignored by the Bush administration, many are snapping up the large amounts of money being offered by China, which has quickly grown into the region's second largest trading partner. "This is how the balance of power shifts quietly during times of crisis," a former Commerce Department official said.

USA Todayleads with a controversial new article by two Army mental health researchers who say the military is focusing too much of its efforts on identifying mild cases of traumatic brain injury among combat veterans, at the expense of other medical problems. This has led many common symptoms to be identified as the result of TBI when they're more likely due to other problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide newsbox with Obama's vow to simplify what he described as the "monstrous tax code" and notes that the White House is considering a plan that would free up to 40 percent of Americans from having to file tax returns. The announcement came on the same day as thousands of Americans gathered at "tea parties" across the country to protest against the president's policies.

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It normally takes a year to add names to the "drug kingpins" list, but the White House accelerated the effort to include the three Mexican cartels, Sinaloa, Los Zetas, and La Familia Michoacana to send a clear message that the Obama administration supports President Felipe Calderón's efforts to fight the organizations that are responsible for much of the violence in the country. The administration is still in the process of identifying assets held by the cartels, which some say means the move is largely symbolic. Still, a Treasury official insisted that it's just as important that now any business or individual who knowingly does business with one of the cartels could face stiff penalties. In the past, the "drug kingpins" list has been used to fight Colombian drug traffickers.

The drug-related violence in Mexico has killed more than 10,000 people in the last couple of years, and Calderón has asked the United States to take concrete action against weapons traffickers as well as combat Americans' "insatiable demand for illegal drugs," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it when she visited Mexico last month. And while Mexicans know the drug war has overshadowed everything else, they still want the Obama administration to focus on immigration reform as well as trade issues. Ultimately, they're unlikely to be satisfied by Obama's visit, which the LAT describes as "largely symbolic." And symbolism is exactly what Mexicans don't want right now, particularly since they feel like all they got during the Bush administration were "little pats on the back," as former Mexican President Vicente Fox said. So far it seems the White House has no desire to get into a fight with the gun lobby and push to reinstate an assault weapons ban that lapsed during the Bush administration.

The article by Army mental health researchers has raised objections from many who say identifying and treating traumatic brain injury is crucial. The premise is more than a little surprising, considering that the usual story line had been that the Pentagon wasn't paying enough attention to the issue. But now the two authors of the study say the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have gone too far in the other direction and should get rid of the questionnaires that are meant to identify TBI in troops returning from combat. They claim TBI is often blamed for symptoms that are more likely due to other issues, such as depression and substance abuse, so there should be a bigger focus on identifying and treating the symptoms rather than expending so much energy on identifying whether they're due to a mild case of TBI.

The NYT fronts word that a National Security Agency eavesdropping program went beyond its legal limits and captured e-mails and phone calls between Americans in recent months. Officials say the practice of "overcollection" was significant, but it may have been unintentional. The Justice Department acknowledged the problem had been discovered and said changes have been ordered to the program. Investigators are still trying to determine whether anyone's privacy was violated, but they caution that just because the NSA obtained access to the communications doesn't automatically mean that agents were listening in on conversations or reading e-mail messages. The NYT waits until the ninth paragraph to mention that a separate Justice Department investigation has discovered that the NSA tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant on an overseas trip a few years ago. Apparently it was believed that the lawmaker was in contact with an extremist who was already a target of the surveillance program. The plan was never carried out.

While many have been eager to describe the G20 meeting and, to a lesser extent, the standoff with pirates off the Somali coast as Obama's first test on the world stage, the WP's David Ignatius says the administration's first real diplomatic test came last month in Pakistan. That was when opposition leader Nawaz Sharif joined a "long march" to demand that the government restore the country's deposed chief justice. The ensuing violence could have led to a military coup, but all sides backed down just in time, largely thanks to a settlement that was brokered by members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "This intervention was deftly handled," writes Ignatius, "but it deepened America's involvement in Pakistani politics—a process that is creating a dangerous anti-American backlash."

Everyone notes that Obama and his wife reported a combined income of $2,656,902 in 2008, and they paid $855,323 in taxes. They were entitled to receive a $26,000 refund but chose to apply it to next year's income taxes. The vast majority of the first couple's income came from the sale of Obama's books, which had already made them more than $4.1 million in 2007. These figures put Obama "in the top tier of nonfiction writers in terms of income from book sales," declares the WP. The Obamas reported donating about 6.5 percent of their adjusted gross income to 37 charities. The White House also released the tax returns for Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, who reported an income of about $270,000, and claimed around $1,900 in charitable deductions, less than 1 percent of earnings.

The NYT looks into one very crucial question: Does first dog Bo know he's famous? Answer: No. Some dog lovers beg to differ. "Oh, they know they're famous, and they definitely get an attitude," said the owner of a bichon frisé who won Westminster. But animal psychologists say there's no way Bo knows he's a star. "Dogs don't know fame," one psychology professor said. But since he's probably getting lots of attention from the first family, "that might be equivalent to fame. He might think he has groupies."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.