Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and US President Barack Obama wanted to put economic ties at the heart of their talks yesterday, but Mexico’s shifting drug war tactics loom large over the US leader’s visit.
Mexico is the first stop of a three-day trip that will also take Obama to Costa Rica for a summit with Central American leaders, with trade, US immigration reform and the battle against drug cartels high on the agenda.
After seven years of bloodshed by drug gangs that has left a staggering 70,000 people dead in Mexico, Pena Nieto and Obama have both made clear they want to turn the spotlight back on trade ties and other matters.
“We’ve spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border,” Obama said on Tuesday.
Twenty years into the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which also includes Canada, Mexico is Washington’s third-biggest trading partner, with US$500 billion exchanged every year.
Mexico and Washington want to “talk about the benefits and the need to rebalance and diversify the relationship,” Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister for North America Sergio Alcocer said.
However, the relationship has been marked by deep cooperation in the fight against powerful drug cartels that make billions of dollars by feeding cocaine, marijuana and heroin to US addicts.
The US is providing US$1.9 billion in aid, including police trainers and crime-fighting equipment, to help Mexico fight the drug gangs.
Pena Nieto, who visited Obama in Washington shortly before taking office in December, has vowed to reduce the wave of murders, kidnappings and extortion plaguing his country.
While he is keeping troops that were deployed in the streets by his predecessor for now, he has launched a new strategy that includes a crime prevention program and a shift in the way the Mexican government will work with US law enforcement.
His predecessor, former Mexican president Felipe Calderon, forged unprecedented security ties with Washington by allowing US agencies to deal directly with Mexican counterparts during his six-year administration.
The new government wants to channel all security matters through a “one-stop window,” the powerful interior ministry, which has been tasked with coordinating the country’s fight against organized crime.
Obama said he was not yet ready to judge how Pena Nieto’s strategy would change security relations until he had spoken to him.
“At this point, we’re confident that we’re going to have a good constructive and effective security relationship with Mexico, and we look forward to hearing from them about how they plan to go forward with it,” said Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s adviser for Latin America.