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Biden's Mexico visit likely to focus on trade, not spying

September 19, 2013|By Richard Fausset | This post has been updated. See note below.
  • Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd this week at the Georgia Ports Authority in Garden City, Ga. He was to arrive in Mexico City on Thursday night to discuss bolstering cross-border trade.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a crowd this week at the Georgia Ports… (Steve Bisson / Savannah…)

MEXICO CITY — When Vice President Joe Biden meets with Mexican officials here Friday, he is expected to reinvigorate talk about the promising trade relationship between the United States and its southern neighbor and largely avoid discussing the troubles that continue to plague Mexico — as well as the recent allegations of U.S. spying on President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden indicate that the U.S. spied on Peña Nieto while he was a presidential candidate in 2012 and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. This week, the outraged Brazilians canceled a state visit to Washington by the Brazilian leader that was planned for next month.

Mexican officials have said that such spying would be a violation of international law and that the United States has promised an investigation. But at a news conference Wednesday, Mexican Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Sergio Alcocer said Mexico never considered changing its plan to welcome Biden, who on Friday will attend the first iteration of what is hoped to be an annual "High-Level Economic Dialogue" between Mexican and U.S. officials.

The two nations' relationship, Alcocer said in an interview with The Times, is "very wide, very deep, very mature, and one that has, like any complex relationship, the possibility for irritations, but it also has the ability for those [irritations] to be resolved."

[Updated, 8:10 p.m. Sept. 19: Biden, traveling aboard Air Force Two, arrived late Thursday evening in a drizzling Mexico City, where he was met by Alcocer and Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.]

Biden and other U.S. Cabinet members will join their Mexican counterparts and local business leaders to discuss how the countries can further bolster cross-border trade, which has flourished since the 1994 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. officials say U.S.-Mexico trade has quadrupled since then to nearly $500 billion a year and that Mexico is America's third-largest trading partner.

Mexican officials are particularly keen to discuss ways to ease the movement of goods across the border. The goal is complicated by the fact that Mexican transfer trucks are commonly used to smuggle drugs into the United States.

The American delegation's focus on the economy, at least in public, appears to be part of an effort to help Peña Nieto shift focus away from Mexico's problems, particularly its bloody drug war, and onto its economic potential. President Obama did his best to promote this more positive narrative during a visit here in May, during which he downplayed security issues and spoke instead about an emergent "new Mexico."

More recently, however, reality has impinged on the good-news story Peña Nieto is trying to tell. Last month, the government scaled back this year's forecast for economic growth to 1.8% from 3.1%. Though the government says that the homicide rate has fallen almost 14% since Peña Nieto took office in December, independent experts contest the numbers. Kidnapping and extortion are on the rise, and large swaths of Michoacan and Guerrero states are suffering a crisis of governance because of the heightened power of drug gangs.

The U.S. Congress has appropriated at least $1.9 billion since the start of fiscal 2008 to help Mexico fight its drug war, as part of the so-called Merida Initiative, but American officials have privately expressed concern about the new administration's desire to reassess security cooperation. They also were outraged last month when a Mexican appeals court released drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, convicted of the 1985 murder of a U.S. drug enforcement agent. Caro Quintero has since disappeared, and the U.S. has requested his extradition.

Though such issues are not expected to be topics of public discussion Friday, a senior Obama administration official said they could be discussed in a private meeting scheduled between Biden and Peña Nieto.

"They'll have an opportunity to discuss the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship — and I suspect that security cooperation and related issues will be a part of that discussion," the U.S. official said.

After the spying allegations arose, Obama met privately with Peña Nieto and Brazil's Rousseff at the Group of 20 summit this month in St. Petersburg, Russia, in an effort to smooth things over.

For now, the Mexicans are "waiting for the results of the investigation that President Obama promised," said Undersecretary Alcocer.

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Twitter:@RichardFausset

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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