An agenda for President Obama in Mexico and Central America

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Mexico's then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto in November 2012. PHOTO: Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Mexico’s then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto in November 2012. PHOTO: Reuters

By Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President / Special Adviser on Latin America

President Obama’s visit to Mexico and Costa Rica this week is billed as an encounter on economics and democracy, but crime and security will be hard to ignore. Mexico is experiencing a marked revival; it is listed 11th in global purchasing power and does $500 billion a year in trade with the U.S. In Costa Rica, President Obama will highlight the democratic stability of a country that decided more than 50 years ago to do without an army. However, in both countries citizen security is now the main public concern amid unrelenting violence by Mexican criminal cartels engaged in extortion, kidnapping and cocaine trafficking. Crisis Group covered this issue in depth in our inaugural report from Mexico in March.

President Obama could take four decisions on the trip that would make his counterparts happy and help anticipate the June Organization of American States General Assembly debate on counterdrug policy and crime.

First, he could announce a blue-ribbon presidential bipartisan commission to review U.S. counterdrug policy, taking into account the views of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy blue-ribbon panel and the forthcoming OAS report on that issue, which should be made public soon.

Second, he could pledge to share more intelligence and more money in response to the new Mexican security plan on police and justice reform. He could also support Mexican president Peña Nieto’s community violence prevention plan, which is designed to reduce poverty among youth. Together, Peña Nieto and Obama could pledge to do more on violence prevention and security reform not only in the Northern Triangle area of Central America but throughout the isthmus, no part of which is free of gang and cartel-driven violence.

Third, while much needs to be done to bolster institutions south of the border, the U.S. can help Mexico and Central America the most by putting its own house in order, by stopping the flow of assault weapons across its borders and toughening money laundering laws.

Finally, President Obama is likely to face questions in both countries about immigration reform, a concern throughout the region and an issue he promised to make a high priority at the Summit of the Americas four years ago. He should have an answer ready.

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