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Mexicans urge Obama, Peña Nieto to focus on security

Two sisters prepare hot dogs near the central plaza in the town of Cuatro Cienegas. Most residents here are concerned about security in Mexico.
Two sisters prepare hot dogs near the central plaza in the town of Cuatro Cienegas. Most residents here are concerned about security in Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe

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President Obama travels south today to meet with Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Under this new administration, Mexico wants to shift focus away from fighting drug traffickers to strengthening the economy. Fronteras Desk reporter Mónica Ortiz Uribe was in Mexico to talk with people there about their concerns ahead of the meeting.

President Barack Obama travels south Thursday to meet with Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Under this new administration, Mexico wants to shift focus away from fighting drug traffickers to strengthening the economy.

In Mexico's northern industrial region there are those who tend to agree with the president.

Monterrey is a city of five million people cradled between tall, jagged mountains with suffocating traffic and a high cost of living. English is practically a second language and the United States is like Monterrey's best friend.

"I think we are good partners," said Manuel Montoya, who directs an alliance of companies focused on automobiles.

"Both the American buyers and the Mexican sellers, we are making business in a good way," he said.

The auto industry is king in Mexico, as 80 percent of the big rig trucks on U.S. highways were assembled here. Mexico also supplies the U.S. with parts like windshields, seat belts and steering wheels. Montoya feels it's time Americans stop identifying Mexico with only violence.

"They used to treat us like Kabul or like Beirut, but you can't compare," he said. "This doesn't help our business."

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last November, Peña Nieto wrote, "it is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns."

Instead the president wants to focus on binational trade, which in the last 20 years has quintupled to more than a billion dollars a day.

In downtown Monterrey a group of teenage boys in T-shirts and buzz cuts practiced a patriotic tune on rusty trumpets. Nearby is the office of another business alliance focused on a rapidly growing industry in Mexico, information technology. Guillermo Safa is the director.

"The IT sector is growing at 30 percent each year," Safa said.

In 2004 the state of Nuevo Leon had 2,000 engineers working in this field. Today that number is 12,000. Globally Mexico is in third place for IT outsourcing.

"The result of this growth could present new opportunities in Mexico," Safa said. "It may do away with the temptation to immigrate to the United States when there is a good life to be had here in Mexico."

Safa is even hopeful these new jobs might draw Mexicans already in the United States back home. Call centers, for example, are hiring Mexicans with good English skills and experience in the United States.

Four hours outside Monterrey, in the town the Cuatro Cienegas, two sisters prepared bacon-wrapped hot dogs near the central plaza. The town is in the state of Coahuila where drug violence is particularly heavy.

When locals here consider what they'd like the two presidents to discuss, one answer stands out above the rest: insecurity.

While this town has been spared from the most horrific violence, news from around the region travels fast: prison breaks, mass shootings and kidnappings. Organized crime still has a strong grip on the country and drug-related killings continue daily.

Ruben Perez drives a taxi in Cuatro Cienegas.

"It's scary to be out on the road," he said. "Things are bad."

Whether things will improve is anybody's guess.

Under former President Felipe Calderon, the U.S. was an important partner in the fight against organized crime. U.S. intelligence was behind the arrest of Mexico’s most wanted capos.

But under Peña Nieto things have changed. The new administration has made it clear that when it comes to security matters the United States' role will be significantly reduced.

Whether this new strategy will work for Mexico remains to be seen.