President Obama, left, is seen shaking hands with Mexican President Enrique… (AFP / Getty Images )
President Obama met in Mexico on Thursday with President Enrique Peña Nieto. Publicly, the two leaders focused on trade. That makes sense given the strong economic ties between the two nations and Peña Nieto's efforts to introduce more competition to Mexico's energy and telecommunications sectors in the hopes of boosting his country's economy.
But privately the two presidents will also discuss bilateral security, including Peña Nieto's decision this week to require all U.S. law enforcement contact with federal police to be routed through Mexico's Interior Ministry. That shift, as well as Mexico's reported intention to restrict American security officials' access to drug intelligence, has sparked concern in Washington, where Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has already put a hold on the release of $246 million in anti-crime funding for Mexico until lawmakers can get a better sense of how the money will be used.
Some critics worry that Peña Nieto, who took office in December, is scaling back cooperation and distancing himself from the United States in an effort to protect his image and burnish his nationalist credentials. Those concerns aren't irrational. After all, his Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power in Mexico for 70 years until the 2000 election, has a long history of nationalism and anti-American rhetoric.
OP-ED: A Mexican father's plea to two presidents
But whether Peña Nieto is actually intent on reining in the American role in Mexico's drug war remains to be seen. Part of the problem is that his government has yet to unveil a detailed security plan or to lay out what it hopes for in aid and cooperation from the United States.
Clearly, both countries have a strong interest in the ongoing war against the drug cartels. Since that war began seven years ago, Mexico has paid a high price: Nearly 70,000 people have died in the violence, and thousands disappeared between 2006 and 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. The U.S. pays a cost too — because of the drugs that continue to flow into the country — and it has yet to address drug addiction or curb its appetite for illicit narcotics.
We hope this week's meetings provide the two presidents with the opportunity to calm each other's fears so that the U.S. and Mexico can begin building better security strategies that focus on mutual interests and address the source of the violence.
They must recognize that Mexico cannot simply kill its way out of the problem but must combat corruption, strengthen weak institutions and fully implement judicial reforms.