President Obama raised concerns about violence in Mexico during an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with the country's president, while also praising the two nations' efforts to improve their handling of issues such as immigration.
As protesters in the snow outside waved signs about human rights abuses south of the border, Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto talked about the investigation of the fall disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, where a violent drug gang reportedly collaborates with corrupt police and stands as a symbol of a crisis.
"Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico," Obama told reporters. "And we want to be a good partner in that process, recognizing that ultimately it will be up to Mexico and its law enforcement to carry out the decisions that need to be made."
The Obama administration has supported the Mexican government with the Merida Initiative, providing, among other things, more than $2 billion to fight drug trafficking in the country.
On immigration, the Obama administration wants to avoid a repeat of the widely broadcast images in the summer of children in detention awaiting deportation to their home countries. Obama went into Tuesday's meeting looking to discuss ways to prevent a surge of migrants, according to a senior administration official familiar with the talks.
The White House considered Peña Nieto a key partner in reducing last year's stream of immigrant children. But the Mexican government's help didn't eliminate the problem.
In numerous raids by army and police throughout the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, migrants by the thousands were pulled from the freight trains they travel on, or from flophouses, shelters and the streets, and deported to Central America's so-called Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. More than 60,000 had been deported by the fall, more than in any previous year.
It is a controversial move in Mexico; many migrant activists accuse the Mexican government of doing the "dirty work" of the United States by stopping the flow of migrants, especially minors, who overwhelmed Border Patrol agents in the summer.
Peña Nieto's government is under attack for its clumsy handling of the investigation of the students' kidnapping, and he has also been hit by conflict-of-interest scandals involving him and his wife and close aides' use or financing of homes from a contractor who received millions of dollars in government contracts.
Angry street demonstrations for months have demanded Peña Nieto's resignation amid the mounting allegations of graft, corruption and incompetence — and the failure to adequately investigate killings and other atrocities.
Before Peña Nieto arrived at the White House, a demonstration formed in the park across Pennsylvania Avenue to protest the violence. The head of the AFL-CIO, a friend to the Obama administration, echoed the protesters' sentiment in a letter released Tuesday, noting the Mexican students' disappearance as just one episode of violence in a country rife with danger and injustice, especially for low-wage workers.
The rapid deterioration of both human and workers' rights, wrote AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, "affects working people in both countries." Growing economic inequality and lack of opportunity are two of the main factors weakening such rights, Trumka wrote.
Peña Nieto's agenda for his trip to the White House, his first since taking office two years ago, was heavy on trade with and investment in Mexico, especially its energy sector, part of his broader economic reform program.
The goal of creating economic growth, jobs and prosperity, Obama said after the meeting, "is uppermost in the minds of most Mexicans and Americans."
Parsons reported from Washington and Wilkinson from Mexico City.