MEXICO CITY - President Obama sought on Thursday to tamp down a potential rift with Mexico over a dramatic shift in the cross-border fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, acceding that Mexicans had the right to determine how best to tackle the violence that has plagued their country.
Since taking office in December, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has moved to end the widespread access that U.S. security agencies have had in Mexico to tackle the violence that affects both sides of the border. It's a departure from the strategy employed by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, which was praised by the U.S. but reviled by many Mexicans.
Obama said the shifting security relationship would not hurt cooperation between the two nations.
"I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security, even as the nature of that cooperation will evolve," Obama said during a joint news conference at Mexico's grand National Palace. "It is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with the other nations - including the United States."
Peña Nieto downplayed any notion that the new arrangement would damage its security partnership with the United States. He said Obama agreed during their private meeting earlier in the day to "cooperate on the basis of mutual respect" on an efficient, effective strategy.
Obama arrived in Mexico Thursday afternoon for a three-day trip that will also include a stop in Costa Rica.
Domestic issues followed the president south of the border, with Obama facing questions in his exchange with reporters about the debate on Capitol Hill on immigration reform.
The issue is being closely watched in Mexico. More than half of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally are Mexican, according to the Pew Research Center.
While Obama views an overhaul of the nation's patchwork immigration laws as a legacy-building issue, he's been forced to take a low-profile role in the debate to avoid alienating wary Republicans.
In an effort to court those GOP lawmakers, the draft bill being debated on Capitol Hill focuses heavily on securing the border with Mexico, and makes doing so a precondition for a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.
But Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the bill's architects, said Thursday that unless the security measures are made even tougher, the legislation will face tough odds.
The president acknowledged there were some areas along the 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico where security needs to be tightened. But he chided Republicans for putting up obstacles.
"I suspect that the final legislation will not contain everything I want. It won't contain everything that Republican leaders want, either," Obama said.
He added that "what I'm not going to do is to go along with something where we're looking for an excuse not to do it as opposed to a way to do it."