MEXICO CITY - President Barack Obama sought on Thursday to tamp down a potential rift with Mexico over a dramatic shift in the cross-border fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, acceding that Mexicans had the right to determine how best to tackle the violence that has plagued their country.
Since taking office in December, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has moved to end the widespread access that U.S. security agencies have had in Mexico to tackle the violence that affects both sides of the border. It's a departure from the strategy employed by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, which was praised by the U.S. but reviled by many Mexicans.
Obama said the shifting security relationship would not hurt cooperation between the neighboring nations.
President Barack Obama and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, right, leave after offering a joint news conference in Mexico City, Mexico, Thursday. Seeking to put a new spin on a long-standing partnership, Obama is promoting jobs and trade - not drug wars or border security - as the driving force behind the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
"I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security, even as the nature of that cooperation will evolve," Obama said during a joint news conference at Mexico's grand National Palace. "It is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with the other nations - including the United States."
Pena Nieto as well downplayed the notion that the new, more centralized arrangement would damage its security partnership with the United States. He said Obama agreed during their private meeting earlier in the day to "cooperate on the basis of mutual respect" to promote an efficient and effective strategy.
Obama arrived in Mexico Thursday afternoon for a three-day trip that will also include a stop in Costa Rica. Domestic issues followed the president south of the border, with Obama facing questions in his exchange with reporters about the potential escalation of the U.S. role in Syria, a controversy over contraception access for teenage girls, and the delicate debate on Capitol Hill on an immigration overhaul.
The latter issue is being closely watched in Mexico, given the large number of Mexicans who have emigrated to the U.S. both legally and illegally. More than half of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally are Mexican, according to the Pew Research Center.
For Obama, the immigration debate is rife with potential political pitfalls. While he views an overhaul of the nation's patchwork immigration laws as a legacy-building issue, he's been forced to keep a low-profile role in the debate to avoid scaring off wary Republicans.
In an effort to court those GOP lawmakers, the draft bill being debated on Capitol Hill focuses heavily on securing the border with Mexico, and makes doing so a pre-condition for a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally. But Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the bill's architects, said Thursday that unless the border security measures are made even tougher, the legislation will face tough odds not only in the GOP-controlled House but also in the Democratic-led Senate.