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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.

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Some of the announced changes have caused ripples of concern north of the border – Peña Nieto has decided that all cooperation with US law enforcement agencies should be channeled through Mexico’s Interior Ministry, which is responsible for all internal security issues.  

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Some Drug Enforcement Agency officials have said privately they worry that order could disrupt their work with their Mexican counterparts. But Obama says that, while he wants to hear from Peña Nieto what he intends from such changes, his initial understanding is that the Mexican leader is primarily aiming for better coordinated and more efficient domestic security efforts.

“Some of the issues that he’s talking about really had to do with refinements and improvements in terms of how Mexican authorities work with each other, how they coordinate more effectively, and it has less to do with how they’re dealing with us,” Obama said at a press conference Tuesday.

The new Mexican leader’s “streamlining” of law enforcement efforts has a lot to do with domestic considerations and very little to do with cooperation with the US, CIDE’s Chabat says. Already under President Calderon US-Mexico counternarcotics cooperation had shifted from the provision of antitrafficking vehicles and related supplies to “institution-building,” he says.

What is different, Chabat adds, is that for political reasons Peña Nieto will be less public than his two predecessors about US-Mexico security cooperation.

“Calderon and [Vicente] Fox,” the last two presidents who hailed from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), “were very open about cooperation with US security agencies,” he says. But Peña Nieto faces different political pressures, he says.

Peña Nieto “will continue cooperation with the US in a very important way,” Chabat says. But he notes that the new president hails from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 70 years (until 2000) with a veneer of proud independence from American influence. As a result, he says, Peña Nieto “will think it’s important to maintain some rhetorical distance from the US to protect himself from the ultra-nationalists.”

Mexican authorities have started to trumpet what they say is a drop-off in violence and drug-war deaths since Peña Nieto took office. But some Mexican human rights groups and outside organizations like the Washington Office on Latin America say that the reduction in violence is exaggerated and limited to a few states, and that rights abuses continue at high levels.

Chabat says no one expects Mexico’s high levels of violence to fall off rapidly, or for the new government to abandon the war on drugs. And in that context of continuity, he says it’s understandable that Obama and Peña Nieto would look to change the narrative of US-Mexico relations to something more positive.

Citing such “positives” as Mexico’s recent impressive economic growth and a decade of poverty reduction across much of Latin America, some experts say Obama is broadening the spectrum of US interests in its southern neighbors at the right time.

Expanding the US agenda “offers the administration an opportunity to put together different elements that could make this relationship new, contemporary, and make people excited about the US and the region in a way that hasn’t been done in the past,” says Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Referring to Mexico as “the current darling of international economists,” Chabat says it makes sense for Obama to focus on the positive, even if the drug war is not about to go away.

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