Obama vows trade, drug war co-operation in Mexico
US President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart vowed on Thursday to put trade back at the core of their relations and to work together in the drug war as Mexico rolls out a new security strategy.
After almost seven years of bloodshed by drug gangs that has left 70,000 people dead, the two leaders sought to turn the spotlight back on their US$500 billion economic bond as they met in Mexico City’s historic National Palace.
“Mexico and the United States have one of the largest, most dynamic relationships of any two countries on Earth,” Obama told a news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
“And yet, we all don’t always hear about all aspects of these extraordinary ties because too often, two issues get attention: security or immigration.”
Obama and Pena Nieto announced the creation of a high-level economic forum to deepen trade ties that have soared under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which includes Canada.
But the battle against drug cartels remained at the forefront of their talks, as the two countries adjust to Pena Nieto’s decision to put control of Mexico’s security strategy in the hands of his powerful interior ministry.
“I agreed to continue our close co-operation on security even as the nature of that cooperation will evolve,” Obama said.
“It’s up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations including the United States.”
The Mexican leader stressed that the new strategy was aimed at achieving “better results” by focusing on reducing the wave of murders plaguing his country, while insisting on his commitment to battling the cartels.
“These objectives are not contradictory,” Pena Nieto said, insisting that the United States “has understood very well why the government is putting the emphasis on reducing violence.”
His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, forged unprecedented security ties with Washington by allowing US agencies to deal directly with Mexican counterparts during his six-year administration.
The United States has pledged US$1.9 billion in aid, including police training and crime-fighting equipment, to help Mexico fight the drug gangs that feed huge quantities of cocaine, marijuana and heroin to US addicts.
But the new Mexican government now wants to channel all security matters through a “one-stop window” - the interior ministry, which has been tasked with coordinating Mexico’s fight against organised crime.
“It will not be possible or allowed for each agency to determine whom they want to deal with,” Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told Radio Formula.
“Now we must know what each of us wants, and we have to control it. You can’t do things unilaterally, looking at the interests of one country.”
With 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States - two thirds of them from Mexico - Obama’s push for comprehensive immigration reform was also discussed.
The US leader said he was “optimistic” that a bipartisan bill in the US Senate would be approved. Pena Nieto skirted a question about the topic, saying it was an “internal issue” and that he wished Obama “success.”
Some 500 people held a protest outside the US embassy in Mexico City before Obama’s arrival, demanding that US immigration reform include a provision allowing relatives of migrants to join their families across the border.
Mexico City 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 drug war also high on the agenda there.
Security was tight for Obama’s visit. The international airport’s runways closed for half an hour for his plane’s landing.
Outside the National Palace, the usually bustling Zocalo square was deserted.
Later, Obama joined Pena Nieto for dinner at his Los Pinos presidential residence.
Obama will deliver a speech on immigration at the Anthropology Museum on Friday before heading to the San Jose summit. He returns to Washington on Saturday.