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NEARY: President Obama welcomed the president of Mexico to the White House this morning.

President BARACK OBAMA: The United States and Mexico are not simply neighbors, bound by geography and history. We are, by choice, friends and partners.

NEARY: During Felipe Calderon's state visit, high on the agenda will be Mexico's economic woes and the drug war, which has left thousands dead along the border. President Obama and President Calderon are also expected to discuss trade, immigration and clean energy over the next two days.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: President Felipe Calderon needs a good news story right now. He arrives in the halls of Washington at a time when criticism of his deadly drug war is increasing dramatically, his political party is faltering and the Mexican economy is attempting to claw its way back after the global economic meltdown of 2009.

Calderon has staked his political career on fighting the powerful Mexican drug cartels and disrupting the flow of narcotics to the United States. So far, that fight has left some 24,000 people dead in Mexico since Calderon took office in December of 2006. Kidnapping and extortion by the cartels is also on the rise, and there appears to be no end in sight to the violence.

Professor DENISE DRESSER (Political Science, Technological Autonomous Institute of Mexico): I think he's going to the U.S. in search of validation, and in search of a pat on the back.

BEAUBIEN: Denise Dresser is a professor of political science at the Technological Autonomous Institute of Mexico in Mexico City.

Prof. DRESSER: In search of Obama's recognition, that this has not been a futile war, that it is worth waging, and that he has the U.S.'s support in his endeavors.

BEAUBIEN: That support from Washington includes roughly a billion dollars under the Merida Initiative to help Mexico fight the cartels.

White House officials say that this visit by Calderon shows how important Mexico is to the Obama administration and underscores the strong ties between the two countries.

The U.S. is by far Mexico's largest trading partner. Some 10 million Mexicans live both legally and illegally north of the border. But Dresser says throughout history, Mexico has felt underappreciated and insecure in its relationship with the United States. And she says that's still the case.

Prof. DRESSER: Mexico has really not been on the front burner of U.S. foreign policy concerns since President Obama was elected. So I think this is a visit that Calderon needs more than President Obama does.

BEAUBIEN: Calderon's expected to use the visit to denounce the new anti-immigration law in Arizona. His administration has already called it xenophobic and a threat to Mexicans living in or traveling to the border state. Mexico even issued a travel warning for Arizona, and there are calls here for an economic boycott.

President Calderon will also probably bring up how U.S. demand for cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana and other narcotics is fueling the gruesome drug war in his country.

This week, during a visit to Spain, he remarked that Mexico has the unfortunate fate of having the largest drug-consuming nation in the world as its neighbor. And he said that if he stopped his fight against the cartels tomorrow, all of these murderous drug traffickers wouldn't just turn into saints overnight.

Speaking on Spanish television, Calderon also insisted that Mexico is a safe place to do business.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Mexico is a very profitable place to invest, Calderon said, and he noted that Spanish firms of all sizes do business in his country.

During this trip to Washington, he'll also be angling for more U.S. investment in Mexico. Andrew Selee, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, says Mexico watchers are not expecting any fireworks or bold new initiatives to be announced during this state visit.

Mr. ANDREW SELEE (Director, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center): This is a symbolic moment, where U.S. politicians are recognizing that Mexico is an important country for America's future. I think if nothing else, that is the take-away from this visit.

BEAUBIEN: And he says we should expect to hear more from Calderon and President Obama about partnership and shared responsibility between these two neighbors.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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