MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon is waging a harsh campaign against the U.S. ambassador here, repeatedly demanding over the past month that he be replaced in a tiff that has strained ties between the two countries.
Calderon is barely on speaking terms with U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, whom he has said publicly he doesn't trust. Analysts say Calderon's anger stems from both Pascual's views critical of Mexico contained in secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website and the divorced ambassador's selection of a girlfriend — the daughter of a key opposition legislator.
Pascual has won praise in Washington as the architect of a broad U.S. strategy to help Mexico fight soaring drug-related violence, and analysts say the White House expects Calderon's pique to blow over.
But the level of rancor is extraordinary. "We're talking about levels of personal conflict that I don't remember ever having seen," former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda told the Dia Siete magazine Sunday.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Calderon lobbed his first salvo at the Cuban-born Pascual in an interview with the Mexico City daily El Universal on Feb. 22, saying the U.S. envoy suffers from "ignorance" and lambasting leaked cables under his name offering an unflattering view of Mexican security agencies.
One WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy under Pascual criticized Mexico's "risk-averse" army and said it had turned a blind eye to U.S. intelligence leads on how to capture drug lords. Another cable from Pascual's deputy said Calderon struggled with lack of coordination on security issues and "spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed."
Hours before a March 3 meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, Calderon said his level of trust in Pascual had fallen steeply.
Since then, newspapers columnists supportive of Calderon have struck an intensely nationalistic chord here, with several this week suggesting that Calderon has to either work around Pascual or boot him from the country.
U.S. experts on Mexico said they're perplexed by the tiff with Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine who has spent much of his career studying failing states.
"Pascual is the consummate professional," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002 who now heads the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, Calif.
"He is a very cool hand on the rudder of the relationship."
The U.S. Embassy offered no comment on Calderon's unhappiness with the U.S. diplomat, referring to remarks on March 4 by the State Department's then-spokesman, P.J. Crowley: "Ambassador Pascual is, in our view, doing tremendous work on behalf of the U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship, and I know of no plans to adjust his status."
Several analysts said it was remarkable that Calderon had personalized his frustrations with Pascual, knowing it would deprive him of a key go-between with the Obama administration.
"On top of that to do so in such a public manner — speaking to media in Mexico and in the United States, virtually asking for Ambassador Pascual's removal — was more extraordinary yet," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group Pascual has past ties to.
"It is hard to see how such a move could serve U.S.-Mexican relations and even Mexican interests."
Even with the conflict, U.S.-Mexican security cooperation is reaching new levels. Mexico confirmed Wednesday that it is allowing U.S. drones to penetrate across the border to gather intelligence on organized crime.
"When these operations occur, they always come with the authorization, oversight and supervision of national agencies, including the Mexican air force," said a statement by the office of National Security chief Alejandro Poire.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Global Hawk drones — which can fly at altitudes up to 60,000 feet — were in routine use over Mexican territory, and that Calderon had quietly renewed approval for their use in his March 3 meeting with Obama.
As U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Pascual is no run-of-the-mill diplomat. He oversees more than 2,100 employees from more than 40 U.S. government agencies, and helped design a U.S. strategy moving from disruption of drug cartels to include reforming the police and judiciary, and even fostering programs to lessen violence in Ciudad Juarez, a border city that suffered more than 3,100 homicides last year.
News reports say Calderon is irked that since Pascual's arrival in Mexico in 2009, he travels to Juarez more often than the president. Pascual's most recent trip was on Monday.
Another factor said to nettle Calderon is Pascual's personal life.
The ambassador is romantically linked to Gabriela Rojas Jimenez, the daughter of a legislative chief belonging to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which is in opposition to Calderon's National Action Party.
Davidow said Calderon's spat "cannot go on forever before it generates blowback" from Washington, but that he expects the tensions to fall off.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY