President Barack Obama heads to Mexico City on Thursday to meet with President Felipe Calderon, before traveling to Trinidad and Tobago for the fifth Summit of the Americas. Both nations are suffering economically, Mexico's border states are engulfed by drug violence, and U.S. immigration reform initiatives have stalled.
America's porous border with Mexico stretches more than 3,000 kilometers and drug-fueled violence along that border is a growing problem. Drug-related killings in Mexico's northernmost states doubled last year to about 6,000, amid bloody battles between cartels and security forces.
Mexico could become failed state
The lawlessness and carnage has led some Mexico-watchers to suggest the country is at risk of becoming a failed state. President Calderon acknowledges Mexico has a problem, one that will be a focal point of his meeting Thursday with President Obama in Mexico City.
"We have a problem of violence and organized crime that we have to tackle," Mr. Calderon said. "Both countries have to do this. Violence and crime are problems not only of Mexico, as President Obama has acknowledged. These are common problems we have to face together."
For his part, President Obama has noted America's appetite for illegal narcotics fuels the drug trade, and weapons from the United States are finding their way into traffickers' hands.
"We have got to reduce the demand for drugs," the president said. "We have got to do our part in reducing the flow of cash and guns south [to Mexico]."
On that point, Mexican officials heartily concur, saying they cannot eradicate the drug trade unless the United States cuts off traffickers' access to money and weapons.
Top US officials dispatched to Mexico
The Obama administration has boosted the number of federal agents along the U.S. border with Mexico. And, in advance of his meeting with President Calderon, Mr. Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other top officials to Mexico to formulate a coordinated response to the trafficking threat.
But some observers want cooperation to go further. Erika de la Garza directs the Latin American Initiative at Houston's Rice University. She offers this suggestion.
"To create a bi-national border authority where they would craft policies together," she said. "Making it more systematic and institutionalizing it would have greater benefits."
Immigration also a major concern
Immigration concerns will also likely surface in talks between Presidents Obama and Calderon. More than half the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Mexican. During last year's presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, but has not addressed the subject in detail since taking office.
A major complication in tackling the immigration issue is the global economic downturn, according to Ricardo Blazquez, director of the Center for Inter-American Border Studies at the University of Texas. Blazquez says, at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, any proposal perceived as aiding undocumented laborers stands almost no chance of passage.
"Immigration is a significant issue and will remain a significant issue," he noted. "I think the limiting factor would be the current state of economic affairs that really would not promote an open political resolution to the issue."
What about trade agreements?
The deep recession will also affect the two leaders' discussion of trade issues and commercial concerns. As a candidate, Mr. Obama said he favored renegotiating parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and criticized other trade pacts as lacking environmental and labor provisions.
But as president, Mr. Obama has repeatedly spoken out against protectionism, and shown no appetite to cancel existing trade accords.
On a separate issue, Mexico has protested America's revocation of a pilot program that allowed Mexican commercial trucks to enter the United States, imposing retaliatory tariffs on some U.S. exports. White House officials are offering no guarantees that Presidents Obama and Calderon will be able to resolve the dispute during Thursday's meeting.
Will Obama get enthusiastic welcome?
Visiting U.S. presidents do not always get the warmest of welcomes from all sectors of Mexican society. President George W. Bush's 2007 visit to Mexico sparked loud protests in several large cities, but President Obama is expected to be greeted enthusiastically, or at least politely, by most Mexicans.
Ricardo Blazquez says Mr. Obama should seize the opportunity his relative popularity on the world stage affords.
"The benefits of a productive relationship between Mexico and the U.S. are infinite," he said. "I think the option of a failed relationship can no longer exist and cannot be on the table. I think both leaders recognize this."
From Mexico, Mr. Obama heads to Port of Spain in Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas.