MEXICO CITY – U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday pledged to forge an equal partnership with Mexico as the neighbors battle powerful drug cartels, while admitting U.S. guns were partly to blame for deadly violence here.
Addressing a young audience in Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum, Obama said he had come to visit the southern neighbor “because it is time to put old mindsets aside,” acknowledging that a “new Mexico is emerging.”
Greeting the crowd with a few words in Spanish – “Mexico lindo y querido” (“beautiful and beloved Mexico) – Obama turned to a U.S. domestic issue dear to Mexicans during his speech, saying he was “absolutely convinced” the U..S Congress would pass immigration reform.
With more than 70,000 people dead so far in a still-raging battle between drug cartels, the U.S. leader acknowledged that “much of the root cause of violence” in Mexico was the result of U.S. demand for illegal drugs.
“We also recognize that most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States,” Obama said, vowing to do everything in his power to pass gun control reform back home.
The flow of guns into the hands of drug cartels has been a constant irritant in Mexico, which has linked the rise in violence to the expiration of the U.S. ban on assault rifles in 2004.
Obama was speaking on the second day of his visit to Mexico before heading to a summit with Central American leaders in Costa Rica, who will also want to discuss trade, immigration and the drug war with the U.S. leader.
On Thursday, Obama met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December, and the two leaders sought to shift the focus of their relations back to their $500 billion trade ties.
But they also discussed their security bond, with Obama backing Peña Nieto’s new strategy, which is focused on reducing the wave of murders, kidnappings and extortion plaguing Mexico.
In his speech on Friday, Obama said relations with Mexico must be defined by the prosperity they can generate together, not the threats they face.
“Despite all the bonds and the values that we share, despite all the people who claim heritage on both sides, our attitudes sometimes are trapped in old stereotypes,” Obama said.
“We are two equal partners, two sovereign nations. We must work together in mutual interest, in mutual respect, and if we do that both Mexico and the United States will prosper,” he said.
Obama will meet later Friday with the seven leaders of Central America, plus the Dominican Republic, in San José, and they are expected to press him to step up U.S. assistance against violent drug cartels using the region as a stopover for US-bound cocaine.
The U.S. military has sent ships in the Pacific and Caribbean to intercept drugs, deployed 200 Marines in Guatemala and shared radar intelligence with Honduras. But top U.S. generals warned that budget cuts could hamper the mission.
“We need resolute support from the U.S. government to attack our common drug enemy, drug trafficking, since regrettably Honduras and other countries of the region see the dead in a war we didn’t start,” said Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.