- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Set to begin his first second-term trip to Mexico, President Obama is treading carefully on the topic of security cooperation between the two countries and ceding to new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s desire to shift the dialogue toward economics and away from drug cartels and violence.

Earlier this week, the Mexican government signaled an end to the broad access it had given U.S. security agencies focused on fighting drug cartels. Now, all contacts with U.S. law enforcement must go through a single door, the Federal Interior Ministry, a departure from the high level of cooperation throughout the different layers of Mexican and U.S. intelligence agencies during the tenure of Felipe Calderon, Mr. Pena Nieto’s predecessor.

Mr. Pena Nieto is re-evaluating the coordination between the two countries, and despite headlines about an imperiled U.S. role in the anti-drug fight, Mr. Obama is downplaying any tension over the issue.

“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,” Mr. Obama said. “We want to see how we can deepen that, how we can improve that and maintain that economic dialogue over a long period of time.”

This focus on economics doesn’t mean that security won’t be on the agenda during the two-day-trip to Mexico, Mr. Obama said, stressing that Mr. Pena Nieto has assured U.S. officials that he still wants to work together to fight transnational drug cartels.

While the U.S. and Mexico coordinated and cooperated closely during the previous Mexican president’s time in office, Mr. Obama said Mr. Pena Nieto rightly wants to understand and reassess exactly how the two countries are working together.

“My suspicion is that things can be improved,” Mr. Obama added.

Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexican Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Mr. Obama is taking a cautious approach because he and Mr. Pena Nieto are still in the “getting to know you” phase of their relationship.

Although Mr. Pena Nieto’s move to kick out U.S. law enforcement from internal Mexican intelligence fusion centers came as a surprise to U.S. officials, it follows broad themes Mexico’s new president has laid out and is consistent with the disdain his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has for foreign influence, especially American influence, on internal Mexican matters.

Elected in December, Mr. Nieto campaigned on a platform of reshaping the image of Mexico away from its reputation as a land scarred by violence and drug warfare to focus on its recent success as an emerging economy, due to take over Brazil as the strongest in Latin America.

Mr. Pena Nieto “has got a chance to really celebrate the strength of the Mexican economy: 3.5 percent GDP growth this year, 3.9 percent GDP growth last year a growing middle class, which means more people with a car and an ability to take a vacation, with iPods, with cellular telephones, and more mobile,” said Diana Villiers Negroponte, a senior fellow with the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institution, during a conversation with reporters Wednesday.

The U.S. and Mexican economies are increasingly linked, with some $500 billion a year in trade flowing across the border, more than four times what it was 20 years ago, she said. Mexico also is the most important export market for 22 of 50 states, U.S. officials said at an April 19 meeting in preparation for Mr. Obama’s trip.

“This is a new world, this is a much more integrated American market than we’ve seen in the past,” added Brookings colleague Joshua Meltzer. “I think updating the American people on this reality is the main objective for the White House.”

While Mexico’s economic success story is significant, others urge a balanced message when it comes to the message on Mexico.

During Mr. Calderon’s tenure, the FBI, CIA, DEA and Border Patrol Agents had direct access to Mexican fusion centers that integrated that country’s federal policy, army and navy. The two sides worked together on major offensives against drug cartels and 25 of 37 most-wanted drug lords were taken down.

But critics said the anti-drug cartel offensive caused a dramatic increase in violence in the country that increasingly affected civilians. Mexico’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergio Alcocer this week also complained that anti-narcotics efforts between the U.S. and Mexico are lacking a centralized coordination system.

“Before you had Agency A from the U.S. government that would deal with agency X, Y and Z from Mexico and Agency B from the U.S. that would also deal with agency X, Y and Z from Mexico,” he said. “Nobody knew what was going on.”

Instead of focusing on high-profile offensive against organized crime and drugs, Mr. Pena Nieto came into office with an aggressive agenda for reform, including increasing trade and integration with the U.S., foreign investment in the country’s energy industry and changes to Mexico’s financial institutions.

“What we are striving for in Mexico is to convert the North American region into the most competitive and most dynamic region of the world,” Mr. Alcocer said.

As least for now, U.S. officials are echoing those sentiments.

“We don’t want to define this relationship with Mexico or with other countries in the context of security or counter-narcotics trafficking,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at the April 19 meeting. “We want to define it much larger in the context of our citizens’ economic needs and our capacity to do more on the economic frontier.”

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