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Obama’s Mexico trip: What they probably won’t say, but should

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Opinions of thy neighbor

The country could certainly use an image makeover.

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A poll released this week by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson Center reports that Americans’ favorable image of Mexico is at the lowest point in two decades. While acknowledging Mexico is important to U.S. interests, few polled knew it is one of the country’s major trading partners.

In contrast, a recent survey by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project reports that two-thirds of Mexicans have a favorable opinion of the United States, 35 percent of them would consider moving north of the border and about half expect Obama to do right by the rest of the world.

Obama’s popularity in Mexico has improved since his first visit here four years ago, when his meetings with Calderon coincided with the deadly H1N1 flu outbreak that forced a weeklong shutdown of the Mexican capital. He met with Pena in Washington last fall, shortly before the Mexican leader took office.

With an eye on damage control, the presidents conversation this week "will focus on the economic dimensions of the relationship right now," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, DC, research center. "I think that the two presidents would like to say a great deal about that."

Yet the criminal carnage is historic, the worst violence here since the Mexican Revolution of a century ago. It continues all but unabated, often on or near the U.S. border. How can the issue not dominate the presidents’ conversation?

Drug fight, re-calibrated

Nine months after winning the presidency, Pena has yet to define the strategy he’ll employ against the gangs; how it will differ from Calderon’s; what it will really mean for cooperation with the United States.

"Pena Nieto campaigned on promises of a re-calibrated strategy on security and the Mexican public has been patient in granting his administration time to develop its approach," Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Bush administration, said in a statement.

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"But there are risks in the pace his team seems to have adopted, including mounting skepticism — at home and to some extent in the U.S.— that the issue has not been given the priority it deserves."

Pena’s team has moved to consolidate the anti-crime effort under his powerful interior ministry — rather than having the various U.S. and Mexican security and law enforcement agencies cooperate separately as occurred under Calderon. That may cripple the close working relationships that have been forged by lower-level agents from both countries, some analysts fear.

Over the past six years, U.S. agencies, including the CIA, had direct access to Mexican counterparts and U.S. planners favored working directly with the Mexican navy special forces in targeting major kingpins. Rivalries multiplied within the Mexican security forces, often hampering operations. That’s being changed.

"Far from having a large number of agencies without coordination that are knocking on every door, the Mexican government has a single door called the Secretary of the Interior, " Sergio Alcocer, deputy foreign secretary for North America, told The Associated Press.

"There’s a worry," Shannon O’Neil, author of the just published "Two Nations Indivisible," a study of U.S.-Mexico relations, says of the impact on joint anti-gang efforts. "The only way it really works is when you trust your counterpart. And now your counterpart is a bureaucracy."

Such concerns almost certainly will claim a lot of the two leaders’ face time, out of the public eye.

"We’ve made great strides in the coordination and cooperation between our two governments over the last several years," Obama said in the press conference. "But my suspicion is, is that things can be improved.

"I’m not going to yet judge how this will alter the relationship between the United States and Mexico," he said, "until I’ve heard directly from them to see what exactly are they trying to accomplish."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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