Barack Obama will use a visit to Mexico this week to discuss a potential rift over the unfettered cross-border access enjoyed by US agents in the war against drugs cartels.
Intent on demonstrating independence from the US, Mexican president Peña Nieto is ending the unprecedented degree of access that US security operatives enjoyed under former president Felipe Calderón.
The White House, briefing reporters ahead of Obama's two-day trip to Mexico and to a meeting of Central American countries in Costa Rica, played down the effect of new security arrangements being imposed by the Nieto government and said the US was open to discussions. US federal agents were told this week that in future they must work through the Mexican interior ministry, rather than dealing directly with police and intelligence.
Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser, and Ricardo Zuniga, special assistant to the president and senior director for the western hemisphere, said it was up to Mexico how it dealt with drugs and crime. They said they understood why Nieto, at the start of his government, would want to take a new look at security arrangements.
Rhodes said he was confident that agreement could be reached on co-operation. "Part of the reason we are going to have President Obama sit down with President Nieto early in his term is so we can have a collaborative approach to this," he said.
At a White House press conference on Tuesday, Obama said of the new security arrangements: "I am not going to yet judge how this will alter the relationship between the United States and Mexico until I've heard directly from them what exactly they are trying to accomplish."
Under the Calderón government the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and US Border Patrol enjoyed access to army, police and intelligence units in Mexico. This level of co-operation between the two countries is credited with capturing or killing senior figures in the drug cartels. The US provided $2bn towards the fight during Calderón's time in office. But Nieto is adopting a different approach to the drug cartels, pouring money into economic improvement in the hope of isolating the cartels rather than taking them on directly. The Mexican government insists its structural changes in crime-fighting are not aimed at the US but are instead part of centralising police and intelligence efforts.
The Mexican drug cartels are the biggest supplier of illegal drugs to the US and are regarded as its biggest organised crime threat, having infiltrated US cities.
Zuniga said he was aware of the reports of the co-operation that existed under Calderón breaking down. "But in fact the co-operation has been quite good between our governments [and] is continuing," he said. "We view it as entirely normal for a government to take a look at how it defines its security structure and how it combats criminality and establishes a stronger judicial [process]. "We view it as entirely in the realm of the Mexican government to determine how it defines that structure and how it defines its co-operation with foreign partners. The Mexican government made it very clear as well they intend to continue a good and constructive collaboration with the United States."
Rhodes said: "Our goal is not to have a certain amount of presence in terms of security in Mexico but to co-operate with the Mexicans so we can meet the needs of both countries."
As well as security, the two presidents will discuss immigration reform in the US. Millions of undocumented US workers are from Mexico and Obama needs the help of the Mexican government to secure the border. Unless the Obama administration convinces Republican members of Congress that the border is secure, he could face problems in getting a draft immigration reform through the Senate and the House. Rhodes said a secure border would prevent a flood of new immigrants which would put a strain on attempts to get the immigration bill through.
Obama and Nieto will also discuss increasing trade between the two countries.