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Why Obama won't talk so much about drug war on Mexico trip (+video)

Presidents Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto have reasons to change the US-Mexico narrative in meetings Thursday, but 'both countries are still very interested' in the drug war.

By Staff writer / May 2, 2013

In this April 30 file photo, President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP/File

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Washington

President Obama travels to Mexico Thursday with a bilateral agenda that no longer screams “drug war” as its No. 1 item.

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President Obama is heading to Mexico for a three day trip focused on security, promoting trade, and strengthening relations with new president, Enrique Nieto. CBS News' Bill Plante reports.

But if narcotrafficking and security issues seem to have given way to trade, Western Hemisphere energy development, and regional prosperity on the list of items Mr. Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, will discuss Thursday, that doesn’t mean the drug war is a thing of the past, experts say.

It just means the two countries agree it’s time to talk about drugs and drug trade-related violence less.

Instead, experts add, the lower profile the two leaders give to drug trafficking and Mexico’s related violence reflects Mr. Peña Nieto’s effort to downplay his nation’s battle with drug cartels in favor of his reform agenda – and Obama’s own desires to change the narrative of the bilateral relationship.

“Peña Nieto has been putting the emphasis on economic issues and his reforms, and not so much on narcotrafficking, levels of violence, and the security agenda,” says Jorge Chabat, an expert in US-Mexico security issues at CIDE, a social sciences research and teaching institution in Mexico City.

“The US is still very interested in Mexican stability, but basically Obama has decided that not talking about the violence and talking more about economic progress will help legitimize Peña Nieto, and will help Mexican stability,” Mr. Chabat says. “Both countries are still very interested in what continues to be a very big problem,” he adds, “they’ve just agreed to talk about it less.”

In discussing Obama’s trip, White House officials concur that the president sees his three days of travel to Mexico and Costa Rica as an opportunity to shift the focus of the US-Mexico – and indeed the US-Americas – relationships beyond security and drug-trade issues.

“We very much want to broaden the focus of the relationship beyond security to encompass the economic potential,” says Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Noting Mexico’s “tremendous economic growth in recent years,” he says both presidents want to put their emphasis on enhancing that growth “to create jobs and economic opportunity on both sides of the border.”

One reason Obama is making this trip now, Mr. Rhodes says, is that the president saw the moment – Obama beginning a second term, Peña Nieto having just taken office in December – as an opportunity to recast and deepen US relations with Mexico and other southern neighbors.

Peña Nieto replaced President Felipe Calderon, who launched a ferocious fight with Mexico’s powerful drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006. Mr. Calderon’s war challenged the cartels and netted some top traffickers – but at the cost of tremendous violence that resulted in more than 70,000 deaths.

Peña Nieto came into office pledging to reduce the violence, and to put more emphasis on reforms to improve Mexico’s judicial system, reduce legendary police corruption, and streamline the anti-drug trafficking fight through better coordination among the country’s various security forces.

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