San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Obama to discuss drug war, trade in Central America

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Costa Rica on Friday for a Central American summit focused on trade and the drug war after a stop in Mexico highlighting economic and security ties.

The seven leaders of Central America, plus the Dominican Republic, are expected to press Obama to step up U.S. assistance against ultra-violent drug cartels that use the region as a stopover for US-bound cocaine.

The Costa Rican capital was under tight security for the summit, with a heavy police presence, streets closed to pedestrians and cars, and shops and schools shuttered.

Before landing in San José, Obama addressed a young audience in Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology, pledging to forge an equal partnership with his nation’s southern neighbor and put “old mindsets aside.”

“A new Mexico is emerging,” Obama said after greeting the crowd with a few words in Spanish – “Mexico lindo y querido” (“beautiful and beloved Mexico”).

Turning to a US domestic issue dear to Mexicans, Obama said he was “absolutely convinced” the U.S. Congress would pass immigration reform to bring 11 million undocumented workers – a majority of them Mexicans – out of the shadows.

With more than 70,000 people dead so far in a still-raging battle between drug cartels, the US leader acknowledged that “much of the root cause of violence” in Mexico owed to U.S. demand for illegal drugs.

“We also recognize that most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States,” Obama said, vowing to do everything in his power to pass gun control reform back home.

The flow of guns into the hands of drug cartels has been a constant irritant in Mexico, which has linked the rise in violence to the expiration of the U.S. ban on assault rifles in 2004.

On Thursday, Obama met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December, and the two leaders sought to shift the focus of their relations back to their $500 billion trade ties.

But they also discussed their security bond, with Obama backing Peña Nieto’s new strategy, which is focused on reducing the wave of murders, kidnappings and extortion plaguing Mexico.

In his speech on Friday, Obama said relations with Mexico must be defined by the prosperity they can generate together, not the threats they face.

“Despite all the bonds and the values that we share, despite all the people who claim heritage on both sides, our attitudes sometimes are trapped in old stereotypes,” Obama said.

“We are two equal partners, two sovereign nations. We must work together in mutual interest, in mutual respect, and if we do that, both Mexico and the United States will prosper.”

Obama will address much of the same issues during his talks in San Jose, including close cooperation in combating drug smuggling at sea.

Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters that the US leader “will also be discussing economic and other areas. So security continues to be a pressing problem, but there are other topics on the agenda as well.”

The United States has provided $500 million in security aid to Central America since 2008, but the murder rate has soared to 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the region, five times the world average.

The U.S. military has sent ships to the Pacific and Caribbean to intercept drugs, deployed 200 Marines in Guatemala and shared radar intelligence with Honduras. But top U.S. generals warned that budget cuts could hamper the mission.

“We need resolute support from the U.S. government to attack our common drug enemy, drug trafficking, since regrettably Honduras and other countries of the region see the dead in a war we didn’t start,” said Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

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