Ahead Of Obama Trip, Mexico Alters Cooperation Agreements

President Obama heads to Mexico Thursday for a three day trip south of the border that includes a stop in Costa Rica. The president says he plans to focus on trade and economic opportunities between the U.S. and Mexico during his visit. But the timing of the trip comes just as Mexico is altering cooperation agreements between the two countries in the fight against drug trafficking.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Mexico's agonizing war on its drug cartels is about to change and President Obama is about to hear it personally from Mexico's new president. On a trip to Mexico that begins today, Mr. Obama will also focus on trade and economic opportunities between the two countries.

But the trip comes at a time when Mexico is altering its cooperation agreements with the U.S. on the fight against drug trafficking. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City, the changes are rattling U.S. officials but scoring political points for Mexico's president at home.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For the past six years, U.S. anti-drug officials have had unprecedented access in Mexico. American drones have flown deep into Mexican territory. U.S. agents have been part of high level training, vetting of Mexican officers, and even staffing regional surveillance centers. Many credit the cooperation for the capture of 25 of the 37 drug kingpins put on Mexico's most wanted list.

But those ties are coming under closer scrutiny from the new administration of Enrique Pena Nieto and his PRI party, which just came back into power in December. The PRI had a rockier relationship with the U.S. during its lock on power for most of the 20th century. Pena Nieto's officials were reportedly stunned at the open access granted to U.S. officials during the past administration.

MARCELA GUERRA CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish)

KAHN: Marcela Guerra Castillo is a senator from the PRI party and heads up the Senate's foreign relations committee for North America. She says the previous administration's war on drugs is now in the past. It was a failure. It left more than 60,000 dead and 25,000 disappeared.

CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish)

KAHN: She says it must change, we must have a different security policy. That's what Pena Nieto has done. In the past four months he's dismantled the Public Security agency that was responsible for most of the anti-narcotics efforts. Pena Nieto plans to build a new 10,000-strong federal police force.

And his officials announced this week that all coordination with outside forces will now go through one agency - the Interior Ministry. The changes have led to uncertainty in some U.S. quarters. Tuesday, President Obama said he will withhold judgment until he hears about the changes from Pena Nieto directly.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of the issues that he's talking about really had to do with refinements and improvements in terms of how Mexican authorities work with each other, how they coordinate more effectively, and it has less to do with how they're dealing with us per se.

KAHN: In a sign that the fight against drugs is still in full force, the Pena Nieto administration announced this week the capture of a key drug kingpin, the father-in-law of Mexico's most powerful drug lord, Joaquin Chapo Guzman.

The announcement was a rare departure for Pena Nieto, who prefers to talk more about Mexico's bright economic future. President Obama, who according to a new poll is quite popular in Mexico, says he plans to focus more on the economy too during this trip. That bodes wells for Pena Nieto, who has been pushing for a series of economic and political reforms, says Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

JORGE CHABAT: Obama is supporting Pena Nieto's priorities in terms of the domestic agenda, putting the attention on economic issues and not on the security issues.

KAHN: Trade between the two countries tops more than a billion dollars a day, and for nearly half of all U.S. states, Mexico is the number one trading partner. That's clearly a much happier story. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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