MEXICO CITY — President Barack Obama acknowledged on Thursday that the relationship between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and intelligence agencies is changing under new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has been seeking to scale back the United States’ role in confronting drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico.
At the start of Obama’s three-day trip to Latin America, both leaders affirmed the depth of the relationship between the nations at a time when they are trying to forge closer economic ties and people in both countries are following immigration reform proposals in Congress.
But the security partnership between Mexico and the United States has been the biggest potential point of conflict between the two leaders ahead of the meeting. With drug trafficking and the illegal transport of weapons over the border still major problems, U.S. officials are concerned that the new Mexican government seems less inclined to provide the same level of deep coordination with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that was offered by the administration of Felipe Calderón.
Peña Nieto has consolidated all law enforcement cooperation with the United States through Mexico’s Interior Ministry, reining in the wide-ranging and personal connections between U.S. and Mexican military and law enforcement officials.
Obama, who this earlier week reserved judgement on the new approach, said he accepts it at a news conference after a bilateral meeting.
“I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security even as the nature of that cooperation evolves,” he said. “It’s obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations, including the United States.”
Mexican officials have described the changes as a common-sense streamlining of U.S. intelligence sharing, and Peña Nieto said Thursday that the hope is to be more “efficient.”
But the decision has been met with worry in Washington, where some fear that cooperation will narrow and that the relationships and trust developed through on-the-ground joint crime fighting will fade if forced through more formal, bureaucratic channels.
“There was a sense that law enforcement agencies and individuals have developed rich relationships of collaboration, and that might be much more difficult, if not impossible to do, with these changes,” said Eric Olson, a Mexico expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
During his presidential campaign last year and since taking office in December, Peña Nieto has insisted that his government will fight the drug war just as intensely as his predecessor, but that “reducing violence” should be Mexico’s priority.
The United States has not acknowledged its role in supporting a strategy that has grown unpopular in Mexico, said Nik Steinberg, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in drug war violence since 2006, and 25,000 have gone missing, many at the hands of Mexican security forces.
If Obama does not advocate for rights improvements or takes a wait-and-see approach, “it means we have to let Mexico lead and we’ll follow. But the Mexicans have shown they don’t want to talk about public security,” Steinberg said. “If the U.S. stays the course, then we’ll see more of the same: more Mexicans killed and disappeared, more powerful cartels and more drugs coming to the U.S.”
A senior Obama administration official said the United States still expects cooperation, but “it’s natural for the new administration to make adjustments in the mechanics and organization of our security relationship.”
The meeting and news conference were held at the Palacio Nacional, the headquarters of the federal branch of government, and led to agreements to begin talks about promoting trade and collaborating on educational initiatives. It was scheduled to be follow by a working dinner with the two leaders on Thursday evening.
Obama and Peña Nieto spoke about immigration reform sparingly. Obama repeated that he is optimistic that Congress will strike a deal and said the framework being worked on in the Senate is “a great place to start,” even though “it doesn’t contain everything I want.”
Peña Nieto said he appreciates the efforts by Obama and Congress to overhaul immigration laws. He added, “Mexico understands this is a domestic affair for the United States.”
On Friday, Obama is scheduled to make a speech at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City before flying to San José, Costa Rica, where he will attend a bilateral meeting, visit with youth, and hold a news conference with President Laura Chinchilla.
On Saturday, he will make another address and meet with Latin American leaders as part of the regional Central American Integration System — including leaders from Nicaragua, Belize, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
In his remarks earlier this week, Obama said many Central American countries are “struggling with both economic issues and security issues, but are important partners for us — because I think that the vision here is that we want to make sure that our hemisphere is more effectively integrated to improve the economy and security of all people.”
© 2013, The Washington Post