WASHINGTON – President Barack 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 closeness forged by the deadly war against Mexican drug cartels.
The government of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is said to be wary of the level of U.S. involvement in security affairs that characterized the administration of its 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, Pena Nieto and officials from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, want to concentrate U.S. participation into less sensitive areas such as the economy.
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 counternarcotics 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.
The number of U.S. employees at the American Embassy and elsewhere snowballed, coming from agencies as diverse as the DEA, 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.”
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.