May 2, 2013 -- President Barack Obama arrives in Mexico on Thursday afternoon for a 24-hour trip in which he is expected to meet with Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, to talk about trade, security and immigration.
The details of what both presidents will discuss have not been laid out to the public. Nor has it been explained why this meeting is important, other than to "reinforce" the relationship between both countries.
But here are some concrete issues that both presidents might end up talking about and why they need to be addressed.
Mexico's president has tried to shift the focus of U.S.-Mexico talks away from security, and to the economy, arguing that the relationship between both countries must expand beyond drug war cooperation. The U.S. seems to be going along with this request based on statements made recently by Secretary of State John Kerry.
But there are changes in Mexico's security policies that directly affect the United States, such as a recent decision by the Mexican government to stop direct communication between Mexican law enforcement agencies and American agencies. From now on, all requests made by the U.S. for intelligence information must be routed through Mexico's Interior Ministry.
This new policy could hamper cooperation between U.S. officers who work for agencies like the DEA and the FBI, with their Mexican counterparts, according to sources consulted by the L.A. Times. It will also give Mexico's ministry of the interior more power to decide which sorts of sensitive information can be passed along to U.S. agents.
Obama and his advisers will probably have to ask some questions about how intelligence information will be shared from now on and seek some reassurances that information will still be made available to them. They may also want to ask Mexico what it wants to do with bi-national programs that have come under scrutiny from officials in Mexico's new government.. For example, there was a program through which U.S. agents help to conduct background checks on new Mexican police hires to make sure that they have no connection to drug trafficking groups.
Alex Sanchez, a security analyst at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, believes that intelligence sharing will be a significant issue during the private meetings that will be held on Thursday, even if it has been downplayed by both sides.
He said that intelligence sharing will become more relevant as Mexican cartels increase their presence in the U.S., and also as the U.S. explores new ways to secure the border with drones.
"I think the U.S. government wants to make sure that Pena Nieto is on the same page as Obama, that he wants to pursue the cartels as consistently and aggressively as [former Mexican President] Calderon did during his presidency," Sanchez said.
Trade and North American Integration
Some economists in the U.S. and Mexico have suggested that both countries should work together in order to compete against China's economic power.
This belief that Mexico and the U.S. should be partners and not actually competitors is supported by the fact that both countries already produce many goods together with companies in the U.S. sending raw materials to Mexico, for example, where they are assembled into different sorts of products, and sent back to this country.
James R. Jones, a former U.S. ambassador in Mexico, says that North America has the human capital and energy reserves that could make it into the most competitive region in the world.
At a recent panel at the Americas Society, a Washington D.C. think tank, he suggested that Obama and Peña Nieto try to come up with regulations that make it easier for companies on both sides of the border to work together and export their products to the rest of the world.
"We need to find ways to not diminish the security of the border, but still expand and enable the commercial movement of goods," Jones said.
Another issue that both presidents should take a look at is NAFTA's legacy, says, Raul Gutierrez, a Mexican industrialist who leads the steel products group Deacero.
At the same panel at the Americas Society, Gutierrez mentioned that since this free trade agreement was implemented in 1994, the real minimum wage has fallen in Mexico by 25 percent. Under NAFTA, the number of Mexicans living in poverty has increased by 11 million, and more than 2,000 small exporting companies have closed. Mexican exports meanwhile only contain 30 percent of national content, and exports that come out of the assembly plants along the border, known as Maquiladoras, only average 3 percent of national content.
Gutierrez said that things could've been worse for Mexico, if NAFTA had not been implemented. But he argued that the U.S. and Mexico must find ways to boost Mexico's ailing manufacturing sector in order to create jobs in the country and prosperous conditions that would stop people from entering organized crime networks.
"A strong Mexican economy is in the security interests of the U.S.," Gutierrez said. "The U.S. will do well to think of North American competitiveness and not just its own in confronting the challenges of China," Gutierrez added, arguing that a more prosperous Mexico would also be a good market for U.S. companies.
Mexico's president has been rather silent on this issue, saying only that he "fully supports" Obama's push for immigration reform. Back in November when he visited Obama in Washington, Peña Nieto said that rather than making "demands" on the U.S. President and the U.S. Congress, on behalf of the six million undocumented Mexican immigrants who live in the U.S., he wants to "contribute," to Obama's solution.
Peña Nieto may believe that Obama is on the right track, with regards to immigration reform, and that any attempts by his government to get involved in U.S. politics would backfire, and delay Obama's plans.
Alex Sanchez from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says that Peña Nieto's statements of support, which are likely to be repeated during this visit by Obama, are somewhat helpful.
"It's symbolic, of course, and it won't make Republicans back Obama's plan. But it looks good for Obama to get some sort of backing from the country where most immigrants come from."