SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — President Barack Obama on Friday cast Mexico as a nation ready to take “its rightful place in the world” and move past the drug battles and violence that have defined its relationship with the United States. He then headed to Costa Rica to prod Central American leaders to tackle those same issues more aggressively.
Obama’s three-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica is his first to Latin America since winning a second presidential term in an election in which he gained the support of Hispanic Americans by a large margin. His trip is being followed with great interest by Hispanics in the U.S. as well as in Mexico, Central America and farther to the south.
In Mexico in particular, he tried to set a new course for ties between the U.S. and its southern neighbor, eagerly promoting Mexico’s improving economy and its democracy.
The president conceded his own country’s role in the troubles that have plagued Mexico, acknowledging that most guns used to commit crime in the country come from north of the border. A key cause for Mexico’s violence is the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., Obama said, though he reiterated his opposition to legalization of such drugs, which some Latin American leaders have called for.
Still, the president pressed for the U.S. and Mexico to move beyond the “old stereotypes” of Mexico as a nation consumed by sensational violence and of the U.S. as a nation that seeks to impose itself on Mexico’s sovereignty.
“In this relationship, there’s no senior partner or junior partner,” he said. “We are two equal partners.”
From Mexico, Obama headed to Costa Rica. He arrived in the capital of San Jose on a rainy afternoon but received a warm welcome from thousands of Costa Ricans who lined the road near the airport.
Obama is expected to take a more forceful tone with regional leaders than he did with Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, whom he praised for bold reforms. The U.S. sees Central America’s violence and security weaknesses as holding back economic growth in the region. And with fewer Mexicans crossing the U.S. border illegally, the rest of Central America has become the main source of illegal immigration into the United States.
Central American leaders see drug consumption in the U.S. as a driving factor in their security issues, and many of them want the U.S. to take more responsibility in the fight against drug cartels.