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Mexico seeks to pivot relationship with US as new president takes office

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto prior to their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012.

Maria Camila Bernal, Telemundo

News analysis

Mexico's new president Enrique Peña Nieto is surely hoping his inauguration on Saturday will help his country turn a new page in the relationship with its huge northern neighbor.

After all, Mexico is dogged by a six-year drug war that has claimed about 60,000 lives, pervasive corruption and an image problem around the world. So Peña Nieto will want to emphasize what the violence and the negative headlines obscure: Mexico's growing economy, swelling middle class and deepening economic and social ties with the U.S.

A recent editorial by Peña Nieto, who is returning to power the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), the authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, shed light on the new president's pivot.

"It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns," he wrote in The Washington Post ahead of Tuesday's meeting with President Barack Obama. "Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way."

Peña Nieto hopes to reframe US-Mexico relations in meeting with Obama

Indeed, the fact that Peña Nieto was the first foreign leader to visit the White House since Obama's reelection highlights the importance both countries place on their ties.

"This is a longstanding tradition where … we meet early with the president-elect of Mexico because it symbolizes the extraordinary relationship between the two countries," Obama told reporters at a joint press conference.

De-emphasize drug war?
Peña Nieto's predecessor Felipe Calderon made the war on drugs his most important domestic issue, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda told NBC Latino.

"What I think Peña Nieto wants to do is emphasize reducing violence and violent crime in Mexico -- kidnapping, extortion, homicide, holdups -- and not so much the drug trade," he said.

Latin America expert: US-Mexico relations to focus on trade, not drug war

While Mexico's new president has promised to expand the federal police by at least 35,000 in order to deal with crime, Peña Nieto and the PRI will have a brief period to show the United States and the world that they are truly tackling lawlessness and corruption.

"The honeymoon will end when the United States realizes that he will continue to allow corruption," Mexican economist Rogelio Ramirez de la O, who advised left-wing challenger in the presidential race, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

But there is no denying that significant ties bind the two countries. Already, Mexico and the United States are part of NAFTA, the world's biggest trading bloc, with Canada.

Mexico's president wants to change country's name to the one 'we sing'

"Perhaps the most important issue is finding new ways to bolster our economic and trade relationship to attain common prosperity in our nations," Peña Nieto wrote in the Washington Post article.

Mexico markets itself as a manufacturing base for foreign companies, and already Coca-Cola, GM, DuPont and Nissan, among others, have operations in the country. Peña Nieto has also promised to open the country's sizable energy sector to private investment, although he has said that energy resources and the country's state-run oil company PEMEX will not be privatized.

The country's economy is also expected to continue growing faster than the United States. Mexico's GPD is projected to have grown by 3.9 percent in 2012, compared to 2.1 percent in the United States during the same period, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Mexico's drug war is also part of a drug culture with roots in music, movies and even religion.

Immigration reform
Both presidents acknowledged another major issue facing both countries during Tuesday's meeting: immigration.

Despite constant bloodshed, Mexico is ignored during White House race

"I know (Peña Nieto is) interested in what we do as well on issues like comprehensive immigration reform," Obama said.

At an estimated 12 million, Mexicans are by far the largest immigrant group in the United States. And around 7 million, or 59 percent of undocumented immigrants, are thought to have come from Mexico.

While Obama decreed earlier this year that hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who went to the United States illegally as young children would be entitled to remain, the promise he made in 2008 to reform immigration has not been fulfilled. On the flip side of the migration coin are the estimated 1 million Americans living in Mexico, and the estimated 10 million who visit every year.

Read more on NBCLatino.com

Barbara Franco, executive director of The American Benevolent Society, a 140-year-old aid organization for Americans living in Mexico, acknowledged the many issues facing the new president, and said solutions did not lie only with Peña Nieto or the PRI alone.

"There is an economic concern, the need of transparency and the overall legal system in the application of law starting form traffic violation to everything else," said Franco. "But the problems are so huge that it's not about political party or a specific person, it's about a general attitude in solving these problems."

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