A maelstrom of drug-related violence. A brewing trade war. And a wheezing economy.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will arrive Wednesday and meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderón during a two-day trip to Mexico City and the northern city of Monterrey, trying to find common ground on contentious issues such as border violence and trade rules.
"We have a number of speed bumps in the relationship," said Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. "The visit is meant to flatten them."
The issue grabbing the most attention, Shaiken said, is Mexico's crackdown on drug cartels, which has unleashed a wave of brutal murders in the border cities of Tijuana and Juárez.
Cartel violence killed 6,290 people across Mexico last year and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009, according to Mexico's government.
Some of the violence has spilled into the U.S., where Mexican drug cartels are believed to operate in 230 cities, according to a recent U.S. Justice Department report. Mexico has accused U.S. authorities of doing little to reduce drug use and interrupt the flow of drugs within the USA, even as thousands of Mexican troops fill the deserts and search cars at checkpoints along Mexico's interstates.
The United States has cut funding for the Merida Initiative, an aid package aimed at helping Mexico's drug fight. Congress recently trimmed the first chunk of aid to $300 million from $450 million.
Mexico wants the United States to restrict the sale of guns, which can end up in the hands of Mexican smugglers.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier told USA Today that the United States plans to send a large contingent of federal agents to the border, but how many and how much will be spent are still to be announced.
Obama is likely to unveil more anti-crime proposals, said Raúl Brangas, a professor of international relations at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico. "He's seen the importance of having a safer border," Brangas said.
Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder have visits scheduled to Mexico next month before Obama's visit April 16-17.
Trade Talk: Will Obama Fulfill Campaign Promise on NAFTA?
Trade has become another flash point between the countries that share a 2,000-mile border. As U.S. companies struggle in the economic downturn, Mexico is afraid the United States may become more protectionist and backslide on the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Amy Glover, a member of Mexico's Council on Foreign Relations.
"One of the issues that will have to be raised is respect for NAFTA," Glover said.
During the presidential campaign, both Obama and Clinton said they wanted to renegotiate the 1994 trade pact with Mexico and Canada to better protect U.S. workers.
This month, Congress challenged NAFTA by canceling funding for a pilot program that would allow Mexican trucks to travel on U.S. highways.
Mexico retaliated Thursday by slapping tariffs of 10-45 percent on U.S. goods ranging from California almonds to Venetian blinds made in New Jersey.
Mexico is the United States' biggest trade customer after Canada, and the sanctions could affect $2.4 billion in U.S. exports.
Mexican officials want to talk to about joint strategies to jump-start both nations' economies, Glover said.
U.S. manufacturers employ thousands of people at their Mexican factories. In recent weeks, U.S. automakers have shut down factories in Saltillo, Toluca and other Mexican cities because of slumping sales. About 43,500 Mexicans work in auto plants, and thousands more for auto parts suppliers.
One hot topic during the Bush administration will probably be missing from the agenda this time: changes to U.S. laws to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, said S. Lynne Walker of the Institute of the Americas, a think tank in La Jolla, Calif., that specializes in Latin American economic issues.
"Any time there's a serious economic downturn, there's no way the United States can talk about immigration reform," Walker said. "Americans are standing in line for jobs … so it's just not going to fly, politically."
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic. Contributing: Sergio Solache