By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Thursday that the release of State Department cables criticizing Mexico's anti-drug fight had caused "severe damage" to its relationship with the United States and suggested that tensions had risen so dramatically that he could no longer work with the American ambassador in his country.
Calderon's comments were the strongest to date on the secret cables distributed by WikiLeaks, which have threatened to disrupt what both sides have hailed as increasingly close cooperation against Mexico's violent drug gangs.
The Mexican president, at the start of a one-day visit to Washington, suggested that the release of the cables had caused turmoil on his national security team. He took aim at one U.S. cable that said that Mexican military officials had "risk-averse habits."
"It's difficult if suddenly you are seeing the courage of the army [questioned]. For instance, they have lost probably 300 soldiers ... and suddenly somebody in the American embassy, they [say] the Mexican soldiers aren't brave enough," Calderon told Washington Post reporters and editors.
"Or you decide to play the game that they are not coordinated enough, and suddenly start to bring information to one agency and not to the other and try to get them to compete."
Calderon's remark appeared to be a reference to a cable signed by Ambassador Carlos Pascual that described how the Mexican navy captured a major trafficker after U.S. officials gave them information that the Mexican army had not acted upon.
"We have an expression in Mexico, which says, 'Don't help me, compadre,'" Calderon said sarcastically, using the Spanish word for a close friend.
Asked whether he could continue to work with the U.S. ambassador, the Mexican leader said, "That is a question that maybe I will talk [about] with President Obama." The two leaders were scheduled to meet at midday.
Pressed on whether he had lost confidence in Pascual, Calderon paused and then said, "It's difficult to build and it's easy to lose."
U.S. officials have defended Pascual's work and said he would attend the meeting Thursday between Calderon and Obama.
Pascual and the embassy in Mexico are "doing tremendous work to advance U.S. national interests and to support our Mexican partners in - both in the security space but [also] across the full range of the relationship," a senior U.S. official said in a conference call with reporters on the eve of the visit. He spoke under ground rules of anonymity.
If Pascual was recalled, he would be the most prominent U.S. casualty of the WikiLeaks scandal. Only one American ambassador has had to leave the country where he was based because of the cables - Ambassador Gene Cretz, who took an extended break from Libya before the anti-government demonstrations erupted there.
Pascual did not answer an e-mail seeking comment.
Calderon is under intense pressure to curb violence that has soared since he unleashed the Mexican army against powerful drug-trafficking gangs. Over 35,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence during the past four years.