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President Obama's Mexico visit comes with backdrop of uncertainty

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's government is said to be wary of U.S. involvement in security affairs and is expected to change the way things are done.

April 28, 2013|By Shashank Bengali and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, pictured last week during a forum in Lima, Peru.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, pictured last week during… (Karel Navarro / Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — President Obama travels to Mexico this week amid signs that the relationship between the United States and its southern neighbor's new government faces a new period of uncertainty after years of unprecedented closeness forged by the deadly war against Mexican drug cartels.

The government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is said to be wary of the level of U.S. involvement in security affairs that characterized the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. As a result, the Mexican government is expected to narrow U.S. involvement in its attorney general's office and Interior Ministry, the agencies that oversee police and intelligence, current and former U.S. and Mexican officials say.

Instead, Peña Nieto and officials from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, want to concentrate U.S. participation in less sensitive but potentially profitable areas such as the economy.

Privately, the shifts have led to a large degree of concern in Washington about what the day-to-day working relationship will look like.

Publicly, the Obama administration has welcomed a broader agenda.

"We don't want to define this relationship with Mexico … in the context of security or counter-narcotics trafficking," U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said April 19 in Washington, with his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade, at his side.

"We want to define it much larger in the context of our citizens' economic needs and our capacity to do more on the economic frontier. I am convinced we're going to grow that relationship."

Under Calderon, the United States expanded its role in Mexico to a level never before seen, sending drone aircraft, intelligence agents, police trainers and other assistance worth $2 billion over a six-year period to help fight the drug war. U.S. intelligence, in particular, was instrumental in the killing or capture of 25 drug kingpins, or capos.

The number of U.S. employees at the American Embassy and elsewhere snowballed, coming from agencies as diverse as the Drug Enforcement Administration, CIA, FBI and Treasury. Many participated directly in planning and carrying out drug-war missions with the Mexicans.

Much of that is likely to change.

"The U.S. knows it's going to be different and they're actively trying to find ways to work with the Mexican government," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Washington is "waiting to see how comfortable [the Mexicans] are with the kind of cooperation that has been going on," Wood added. "The [Mexican] government recognizes that reliable flows of information and intelligence are crucial, but they would rather build up their own capacity than depend on the U.S."

The PRI wants to assert much more control over how U.S. officials operate in Mexico, said a former Mexican official with close ties to the administration. "The doors [to the Americans] are closing," he said.

One of Peña Nieto's most senior staff members, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam, is openly critical of two areas where U.S. advisors have been especially active — and where their work seems to have backfired: a series of high-profile corruption prosecutions and a botched program of police vetting.

Millions of U.S. dollars have gone to training prosecutors and police. But the corruption cases collapsed because of what Murillo now says was flimsy evidence, and the vetting has failed to rid police forces of bad cops and may also have resulted in the firing of good officers.

"In a desire of simple imitation," Murillo said, "we let ourselves be guided by the values of other latitudes, other countries."

Some in the Mexican government portray the changing relationship as more tweak than rupture.

One official said Mexico seeks continued U.S. support and advice in the drug war, but wants to reinstate a more formal relationship through "proper," high-level channels, not across-the-board contacts throughout its agencies.

"It's how the PRI does things, always centralizing the channels," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the government's thinking.

The PRI ruled Mexico uninterrupted for seven decades until it was booted out in 2000. It returned to the presidency in December and has steadily reprised its tradition of concentrating power in a few hands.

For one thing, it is consolidating control over the drug war under the Interior Ministry, including plans to establish a 10,000-member national gendarmerie and add at least 35,000 officers to the federal police force. A powerful Public Security Ministry that existed under Calderon and received substantial U.S. attention has been dissolved; its main body, the federal police, subsumed into the Interior Ministry.

Experts say that the PRI's long-standing concern for protecting Mexican sovereignty could provide a cover for rolling back U.S. involvement. But it may not be easy.

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