WASHINGTON — Reeling from escalating violence at home, Mexican President Felipe Calderon highlighted his country's security needs this week during meetings with President-elect Barack Obama and President George W. Bush.
Calderon's visits with Bush at the White House on Tuesday and Obama at the Mexican Cultural Institute on Monday showed the close relationship between the two countries.
Calderon was the first foreign leader to meet Obama after the U.S. elections. By tradition, incoming U.S. presidents meet first with leaders of their immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico.
The U.S.-Mexico relationship, however, has come under considerable strain during the Bush administration.
Calderon and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, have urged the Bush administration, without success, to change U.S. immigration policies, which they say unfairly keep out Mexicans hoping to work in the U.S. Fox also resisted Bush's pleas to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Such concerns were brushed aside this week, however, as Mexico suffers a bloody drug-fueled organized crime wave that was responsible for more than 5,700 homicides last year, more than double the record set in 2007.
In its 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment, the U.S. Justice Department said that Mexican drug traffickers "represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."
While meeting with Calderon, Bush said, "Americans are concerned about the battle that's taking place in Mexico, and I want our fellow citizens to understand that (Calderon) understands the responsibilities of government to provide security."
"The United States of America wants to share and help deal with the issue on both sides of the border."
A day earlier, Obama also was quick to tackle the Mexican security issue, saying Calderon "has shown extraordinary courage and leadership when it comes to the security issues."
The U.S. has tried to help Mexico contain the violence by launching the Merida Initiative, an anticrime measure that received $465 million from Congress last year.
"This is not an isolated problem for any country," Calderon said through an interpreter on Tuesday. "This is a common problem that affects us both. And in order to do so, we have worked together and we have made this resolution."
Calderon also met Monday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Calderon also talked about trade issues with both Bush and Obama, expressing strong support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obama had criticized NAFTA during the presidential campaign.
"NAFTA has proved to be very useful, both for the United States and for Mexico," Calderon said on Tuesday. "In that regard, millions of jobs were created here in the United States."
While Obama avoided the topic during his meeting with Calderon, incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama "expressed his continued commitment to upgrading NAFTA to strengthen labor and environmental provisions to reflect the values that are widely shared in both of our countries."
Although the visit with Obama was mainly introductory, it will set the stage for what promises to be a close relationship during a crucial time, said Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America at the liberal Washington Office on Latin America. The U.S. financial crisis, for example, has spilled over into Mexico, while Mexico's crime problems are worse near the U.S. border.
"These meetings do show the importance of Mexico to the United States and that we have shared issues," Meyer said. "I saw clear signs that we will turn over a new leaf in our relationships with Mexico."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY