Obama Promises Partnership With Mexico in Battling Drug Cartels

President Barack Obama promised Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto help in the fight against drug cartels and said the U.S. will keep pressing to expand democracy and human rights in Latin America, including Cuba.

The two leaders also discussed cross-border immigration and boosting trade and economic growth in both countries during Pena Nieto’s first visit to Washington since 2012.

The kidnapping and alleged killing of 43 students by a cartel working with local police in a southern Mexico town, was at the center of talks about Mexico’s security situation. Obama said the administration has been following the events.

“Our commitment is to be a friend and partner with Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and drug cartels,” Obama told reporters following his meeting with Pena Nieto in the Oval Office.

Pena Nieto’s visit follows months of protests in Mexico by citizens demanding better security after the disappearance of the college students, which brought Mexico’s decades-long fight against drug traffickers back into the spotlight.

Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo has said that the students were probably killed after being kidnapped last September by police in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, to stop them from disrupting an event featuring the wife of the town’s mayor. More than 70 people have been detained in the case.

Justice System

Human Rights Watch on Monday cited the case and others in urging Obama to press Pena Nieto on improving Mexico’s justice system. While the White House says it’s pleased with progress, citing arrests of organized crime figures, the New York-based rights group said there’s much more work to be done.

Mexico receives development aid and crime-fighting assistance from the U.S.

As the two leaders were meeting, protesters gathered across from the White House in Lafayette Park to demonstrate against the student disappearance. They counted aloud up to 43 to recall each of the victims, holding Mexican flags, carrying pictures of the missing and chanting in Spanish “What do we want? Justice.”

On Cuba, Obama is seeking to leverage Mexico’s longstanding ties there as the U.S. seeks to end more than a half-century of estrangement from the island nation 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the coast of Florida.

Cuba Announcement

Obama made the surprise announcement last month that the U.S. will ease some travel and financial restrictions and permit U.S. companies to export telecommunications equipment, agricultural commodities, construction supplies and materials for small businesses. The U.S. also will reopen its embassy in Havana.

Pena Nieto called Obama’s move “audacious” and pledged Mexico’s cooperation with the U.S. initiative.

Improving relations with Cuba removes a point of friction in U.S. relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries that have normal diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba. The White House also will seek support from other leaders in the region to push Cuba on human rights and greater freedom for its citizens.

Obama said Mexico “has been helpful on issues like Cuba.” He said that the U.S. wants to put pressure on Cuba’s government to allow greater freedom for its citizens and at a Summit of the Americas “we will insist that those topics are on the agenda.”

Economic Cooperation

Economic cooperation also was on the agenda. The U.S. sent $226 billion of goods to Mexico in 2013, making the nation America’s biggest export market after Canada, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Mexico in turn sends about 80 percent of its exports to the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement signed two decades ago between the three nations.

Mexico also is part of U.S.-led negotiations to complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

On immigration, Pena Nieto said Mexico was working to control the flow of undocumented immigrants from Central America. Obama also said he appreciated the Mexican government’s efforts to “to send a clear message” that his recent executive actions to halt some deportations in the U.S. wasn’t an open door to the border.

Shortly after U.S. mid-term elections in November, Obama announced the U.S. will halt deportations for about 5 million undocumented immigrants. Pew estimates the majority of newly eligible immigrants are from Mexico, based on 2012 data.

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