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Obama Visits Mexico Amid Shifting Drug War Strategy

A street vendor smokes a cigarette as police officers walk past, next to the boarded Zocalo Square outside the National Palace, where U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto will meet Thursday in Mexico City, May 2, 2013
A street vendor smokes a cigarette as police officers walk past, next to the boarded Zocalo Square outside the National Palace, where U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto will meet Thursday in Mexico City, May 2, 2013
Greg Flakus
U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Mexico and Costa Rica this week, starting with a flight Thursday to Mexico City, where he will meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto , who took office in December of last year. The two leaders may put most emphasis on trade and bilateral cooperation, but they also are likely to review efforts to defeat drug smuggling organizations based in Mexico.

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The presidential visit to Mexico provides leaders from both countries an opportunity to emphasize their commitments to trade, economic development and bilateral cooperation. But George Grayson, who teaches at the College of William and Mary and is the author of numerous books about Mexico, said each man has separate priorities.

"The goal is to get the United States to shift its emphasis from security to social and economic matters. The United States is quite anxious to find out the blueprint for Mexico's new policy toward organized crime," Grayson said.

President Nieto took office in December amid a continuing drug war that so far has claimed around 75,000 lives. His predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, shortly after taking office in 2006, used the military to attack organized crime groups, known as cartels in Mexico. He also forged an agreement with the United States that led to close cooperation in the drug war.

But capturing or killing cartel leaders left vacuums that other drug traffickers rushed to fill, often using extreme violence. Grayson said violence remains pervasive.

"The number of deaths per day has increased slightly under Pena Nieto's first hundred days or so in office and, as far as I can tell, the cartels are as strong as ever," Grayson said.

In a recent speech, President Pena Nieto said he will continue the fight for law and order.

He said his goal is to restore peace, while respecting individual rights and promoting economic development.

But his government is scaling back cooperation with the United States and avoiding the large-scale operations carried out by Mr. Calderon. George Grayson said the new Mexican leader is seeking help from France, rather than the United States, to develop an elite national police force and a more sophisticated strategy.

"Use drones, informants, eavesdropping and various technological devices to try to be smarter in fighting the cartels and that kind of knowhow really only comes from the United States," Grayson said.

Grayson said Mexican leaders have always been leery of cooperation with the United States that might involve meddling in Mexico's affairs. But such thinking may be losing ground.

A recent public opinion poll conducted in Mexico by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed 66 percent of respondents with a favorable attitude toward the United States, 10 percentage points higher than it was a year ago. But the same poll shows that around 35 percent of Mexicans would move to the United States if they could.

Grayson said this poses a problem for immigration reform.

"An earlier poll showed that two thirds of Mexicans believe that the border between the two countries is only a surveyor's line.  There is just no doubt that if we were to open the border you would have a cascade of people coming across," Grayson said.

Grayson says passage of a comprehensive immigration bill by the U.S. Congress seems unlikely at this time, but that some pieces might be approved separately.

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