Obama stresses breaking down stereotypes in Mexico speech
(CNN) -- President Barack Obama said Friday he came to Mexico to break down stereotypes between the United States and its neighbor to the south.
Speaking at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Obama said that too often the relationship between the United States and Mexico is "trapped in old stereotypes," where Mexicans see America as trying to wall itself off from Mexico and Americans see Mexico through the sensational headlines of violence in the war on drugs.
"I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mindsets aside," Obama said. "It's time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today's Mexico."
He said it is clear that "a new Mexico is emerging," highlighted by a growing economy, a robust democracy and new generation of youth empowered by technology.
"I see a Mexico that is taking its rightful place in the world," he said.
In the audience, flanked by American and Mexican flags, were students from The American School Foundation in Mexico City. Questioned before the speech, many of them said the war on drugs, North Korea and education rank as higher priorities for them than immigration reform in the United States.
"I hope to hear about his education plans in the U.S. because college is expensive and I'm hoping to study there," said Stephanie Vondell, an 18-year-old senior.
Although many of the students live in Mexico City, an area that has witnessed far fewer incidents of drug-related violence than the north, the war on drugs was not far from most students' minds.
"The biggest thing I want to see is how the U.S. and Mexico are willing to tackle the war on drugs," said Julio Meyer, another 18-year-old senior. "In my point of view, it has not been successful."
On Thursday, at a news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Obama stressed the focus of his trip is the economy, not security and immigration, two issues Obama said often get too much attention when it comes to talking about the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
"We don't want to make this relationship targeted on one single issue," Obama said. "We want to place particular emphasis on the potential in the economic relationship between Mexico and the United States."
But even as Obama and Pena Nieto pushed to shift the tone more toward trade and economics, security issues loomed large over Thursday's meeting.
Pena Nieto said Thursday that his government remains committed to fighting organized crime, but the United States and Mexico must "cooperate on the basis of mutual respect, to be more efficient in our security strategy that we are implementing in Mexico."
Obama stressed that the countries will continue to cooperate closely on security, but he didn't specify how.
"I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security, even as that nature of that close cooperation will evolve," he said.
It's up to the Mexican people, Obama said, "to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations, including the United States."
In the meantime, he said, the United States remains committed to reducing the demand for drugs north of the border, and the southward flow of illegal guns and cash that help fuel violence.
"I think it's natural that a new administration here in Mexico is looking carefully at how it's going to approach what is obviously a serious problem," Obama said, "and we are very much looking forward to cooperating in any ways that we can to battle organized crime."
High-profile cartel takedowns were a hallmark of former President Felipe Calderon's tenure. Pena Nieto has vowed to take a different approach, focusing more on education problems and social inequality that he says fuel drug violence. The details of his policies are still coming into focus, and analysts say his government has deliberately tried to shift drug violence out of the spotlight.
Before Obama's arrival, a spate of news reports this week on both sides of the border detailed changes in how Mexico cooperates with the United States.
Under the new rules, all U.S. requests for collaboration with Mexican agencies will flow through a single office, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told Mexico's state-run Notimex news agency.
It is a drastic change from recent years, when U.S. agents enjoyed widespread access to their Mexican counterparts.
Critics have expressed concerns that Pena Nieto's government will turn a blind eye to cartels or negotiate with them -- something he repeatedly denied on the campaign trail last year. On Tuesday -- two days before Obama's arrival -- his government arrested the father-in-law of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel and one of the country's most-wanted drug lords.
But with the focus on the economy, Pena Nieto said the presidents agreed to create a new high-level group to discuss economic and trade relations between the two nations. The group, which will include Cabinet ministers from both countries and Vice President Joe Biden, will have its first meeting this fall, the Mexican president said.
Imports and exports between the United States and Mexico totaled nearly $500 billion last year, and before Obama's arrival officials on both sides of the border said economic relations would be a focal point during the U.S. president's visit.
The emphasis on the economy Thursday is a significant shift, said Jason Marczak, director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
"The conversations between Mexico and the United States are changing," he told CNN en Español.
After the president's speech, he will travel to Costa Rica, where he will meet President Laura Chinchilla and other regional leaders.