MEXICO CITY (AP) - Mexico is ending the widespread access it gave to U.S. security agencies in the name of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime, but President Barack Obama said Tuesday he won't judge the change until he meets this week with the country's new leader.
Under President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office on Dec. 1, Mexico is ending direct sharing among law enforcement of resources and intelligence as the new government seeks to change its focus from violence to its emerging economy. It's a dramatic shift from the policy under former President Felipe Calderon, who was lauded by the U.S. repeatedly for increasing cooperation between the two countries as he led an aggressive attack on Mexico's drug cartels.
"In my first conversation with the president he indicated to me that he very much continues to be concerned about how we can work together to deal with transnational drug cartels," said Obama, who is scheduled to arrive in Mexico on Thursday.
"I'm 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," Obama told a news conference in Washington.
The Mexican government said Monday all contact for U.S. law enforcement will now go through a "single door," the federal Interior Ministry, the agency that controls security and domestic policy.
Many U.S. officials have speculated for months about likely changes in the security relationship under Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has always favored central political and bureaucratic control.
Before, FBI, CIA, DEA and border patrol agents had direct access to units of Mexico's Federal Police, army and navy and worked side by side with those units against drug cartels, including the U.S.-backed strategy of killing or arresting top kingpins.
But the narcotics efforts lacked proper coordination, Sergio Alcocer, deputy foreign secretary for North American affairs, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Before, you had Agency A from the U.S. government that would deal with agency X, Y and Z from Mexico and then Agency B from the U.S. that would also deal with agency X, Y and Z from Mexico. Nobody knew what was going on," Alcocer said. "Far from having a large number of agencies without coordination that are knocking on every door, the Mexican government has a single door called the Secretary of the Interior."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies deferred comment on Monday to the State Department, which said it looks forward to "continued close cooperation."
With the first bilateral meeting later this week, the message from both countries is now about a broad agenda, with heavy emphasis on economic cooperation.
"A lot of the focus is going to be on economics," Obama said. "We've spent so much time on security issues between the United States and Mexico that sometimes I think we forget this is a massive trading partner responsible for huge amounts of commerce and huge numbers of jobs on both sides of the border."
Wearied by a six-year offensive against organized crime that took an estimated 70,000 lives and saw the disappearance of thousands more, Mexico has sought to change its message and image since Pena Nieto took office with an aggressive agenda for reform. That includes focusing on trade and increased economic integration with the U.S. as Mexico experiences a boom in manufacturing and worldwide buzz about its competitive edge over China and Brazil.
"What we are striving for in Mexico is to convert the North American region into the most competitive and the most dynamic region of the world. That means that certainly there will be integration of the economy," Alcocer said.
Bilateral trade amounted to nearly $500 billion last year, more than four times what it was 20 years ago, and Mexico is the most important export market for 22 of 50 U.S. states, both countries' top diplomats said at an April 19 meeting preparing for Obama's trip.
Pena Nieto's election in July brought back the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years with an autocratic style. They were voted out by disenchanted voters in 2000, an event seen as the opening of Mexican democracy.
Calderon took office in 2006 after a disputed election and went to the United States immediately for help in fighting cartels, which he said threatened to take over all aspects of Mexican society. His aggressive attack on organized crime was supported by the U.S., which offered $1.9 billion for equipment and expertise under the Merida Initiative.
Under his six-year term, an unprecedented numbers of U.S. law enforcement agents began working in Mexico. Neither government will say how many, but the AP identified several hundred in 2011. U.S. drones spy on cartel hideouts, U.S. tracking beacons pinpoint suspect's cars and phones and U.S. personnel train Mexican forces.
All U.S. agents living and working in Mexico get diplomatic status and are banned from carrying weapons.
Instead, they trace cellphone calls, read e-mails and study behavioral patterns of border incursions and follow smuggling routes using images from drones. They process huge amounts of data about dealers, enforcers, money launderers and bosses.
While the Calderon administration took down 25 of its 37 most-wanted drug lords, critics said the effort did little more than cause a spike in gruesome violence that increasingly hit innocent civilians and spilled into everyday life. The situation seemed so chaotic that at one point, some American officials started to question whether Mexico was becoming a failed state.
Meanwhile, the Mexican economy was stabilizing and growing without much fanfare, said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
"Trade marched on automatically without political interference or the need for cooperation," he said. "No one was paying attention, but the trade relationship now is very intense ... the free trade agreement is working."
Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations said the Obama meeting will be a start for concrete changes, including improving border crossings and bureaucracy for quicker movement of goods.
She agreed that security efforts under Calderon at times lacked coordination, but she said centralization also has its downside.
"Some of the deepest cooperation we saw in the last government was between particular agents or teams," said O'Neil, author of the book "Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead." "You can imagine U.S. agents or agencies being reluctant to share intelligence when they don't know who it's going to."