MEXICO CITY — Against the backdrop of a deadly drug war and shifting security cooperation, President Obama joined his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, here Thursday to promote economic integration, trade and jobs.
The two leaders sought to emphasize a U.S.-Mexican partnership committed to growth, education exchange and a strengthened border, minimizing the dominant position that fighting drug cartels has occupied in recent years.
Yet the topic was unavoidable. Obama acknowledged that the Mexican government was “organizing a vision” on how to reduce violence, a strategy that is expected to limit the U.S. participation in Mexican security affairs that had flourished under the government of former President Felipe Calderon.
“We anticipate there is going to be strong cooperation,” Obama said in a joint news conference, perhaps alluding to fears in Washington that apparent retrenchment by the Peña Nieto government might ease pressure on violent cartels. His comments seemed aimed at reassuring those doubters.
Obama added, however, that the U.S. would “interact” with Mexican agencies in “any way that the Mexican government deems appropriate.”
Peña Nieto’s administration has begun to restrict broad U.S. involvement in some counter-narcotics and other security operations, perhaps signaling the end of a period of close cooperation in law enforcement and intelligence. The shift is already causing tension with Washington.
Mexico’s youthful, telegenic president has promised broad reforms in education, banking and energy, as well as a strengthened federal government. U.S. officials are monitoring how these changes affect American interests.
It was Obama’s fourth visit to Mexico as president, but his first with Peña Nieto as president. Peña Nieto assumed office in December, returning his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power after a 12-year hiatus. The PRI ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century.
“We have agreed the relationship between Mexico and the United States should be multi-thematic,” Peña Nieto said in the news conference at the National Palace in downtown Mexico City after the two presidents met in private for about an hour.
Earlier, Mexican officials and a military honor guard greeted Obama on the tarmac when he landed at Mexico City’s airport. His motorcade then zipped through normally snarled streets to the palace, a hulking 16th century building in the center of the capital. The palace faces the vast Zocalo plaza, which is usually teeming with people but had been blocked off for most of the day as a safety measure.
Obama’s trip is aimed at highlighting economic progress and potential in Latin America, not security or immigration.
In a speech to Mexican students Friday, Obama is expected to continue to emphasize themes such as increasing educational exchanges, increased trade opportunities and the reform package Peña Nieto has successfully moved through Mexico’s Congress.
The portrait of a Mexico “on the rise,” as one U.S. official put it, is disputed. Not all economic indicators are so rosy. Mexico’s economy grew by a scant 1% in the first quarter of 2013, and economists have slashed growth estimates for the year by about half. Already, Mexico’s economy was growing at a pace well below the regional average.
In addition, violence continues to haunt much of the country, with drug cartels dominating many regions. And a vote-buying scandal involving the PRI is threatening Peña Nieto’s efforts to build the political consensus necessary to pass more reform measures.
Still, an upbeat message on Mexico serves Obama’s top domestic priority: passing an overhaul of immigration laws through the U.S. Congress.
More than half the immigrants in the U.S. who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas are Mexicans. If Obama can assure U.S. lawmakers and their constituents that the poverty and violence in Mexico that caused illegal immigration are easing, he may have an easier time winning support for the bill.
“Economic development in Mexico will also ultimately get at the root cause of illegal immigration to the United States, so that’s another benefit of the economic growth underway in Mexico,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor to Obama.
Obama will take a similar message to Costa Rica on Friday and Saturday, when he will meet with several Central American leaders.
Obama is hugely popular in Mexico — his approval ratings eclipse those of Peña Nieto — but a presidential visit is always a magnet for protest, and a few demonstrations were planned for Friday.
Mexicans complain that American politicians have done little to diminish the voracious demand for drugs north of the Rio Grande, have failed to stop the sale of weapons that have fueled the bloodletting in Mexico, and have neglected to seriously address the laundering of drug money.
“Does President Obama come here to commit himself to such debates, vital to destroying the root of narco-trafficking, or only to tell us that our role in the relationship is to subordinate ourselves to them?” a leading Mexican newspaper, El Universal, said in an editorial Thursday.
Asked at the news conference about his recently failed attempt to pass gun control, Obama pledged to “keep working on it.”
Obama and Peña Nieto were to have a small working dinner later Thursday. The two men, about the same age, are said to have developed a rapport.
But what many Mexicans see as a disastrous drug war — which claimed about 70,000 lives in six years, led to the disappearances of thousands more and mired security forces in serious human rights abuses — was a policy very much promoted by the United States. The new Mexican government clearly wants to change the strategy, and Washington remains anxious to hear exactly how.
“In essence, Obama is coming to see if his worries [about security cooperation] are warranted or not,” commentator Ana Paula Ordorica wrote in the Excelsior newspaper. “In this context, the challenge for the Mexican government will be to make clear that, yes, there is a [security] plan, and move on as quickly as possible to other themes.”