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Obama to push trade, immigration on Mexico, Costa Rica trip


President Barack Obama leaves for Mexico and Costa Rica Thursday, on a mission to deepen job-creating trade ties but also hoping to discuss US immigration reform, security threats and drug wars.

The three-day trip will see Obama meet new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, then hold his first summit with Central American leaders since the death of Washington's regional rival, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, in March.

Twenty years into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), also including Canada, Mexico is Washington's second-largest export market and its third ranked trade partner, so economics will top the agenda.

"A lot of the focus is going to be on economics," Obama told reporters Tuesday.

"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."

Trade between the United States and Mexico is worth 500 billion dollars, a year -- more than four times what it was before the debut of NAFTA.

"We want to see how we can deepen that," said Obama, who offered an unusual gesture to a foreign leader when he meet Pena Nieto in the Oval Office last November, before he was even inaugurated.

As he did then, Obama is likely to strongly endorse Pena Nieto's vow to end the six-year reign of terror of murderous drug cartels which are blamed for a staggering 70,000 deaths.

Under the "Merida Initiative" signed by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, the United States has sent $1.9 billion in aid to Mexico, much of it in military equipment, as both nations fight the cartels.

But Pena Nieto's new government is stressing it is committed to a new approach, which seeks to drain the swamp of violence by providing economic development to hot regions in the drugs war.

"You don't fight violence with more violence," Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said during a visit to Washington last month.

"You can get a Mexico in peace (with a new strategy)."

As he launches his presidency, Pena Nieto wants to broaden the agenda with the United States, said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They don't want to just be focusing on security, even though I think they will continue focusing on security -- and they still have a lot of problems regarding security."

Obama will be making his fourth visit to Mexico since taking office in 2009 and his sixth to Latin America, as his administration seeks to harness the region's growing economic clout in an effort to boost sluggish US growth.

In Costa Rica, Obama will hold talks with the leaders of Latin American nations as the region digests the geopolitical consequences of late Venezuelan president Chavez's demise and the looming end of the Castro brothers era in Communist-ruled Cuba.

His host will be Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.

While Obama will be venturing abroad, he will also has a domestic mission to accomplish on his trip -- which comes at a critical time for a bipartisan Senate push for comprehensive immigration reform.

The project, to bring 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows, would make a handsome addition to Obama's political legacy.

Its chances of passing the normally gridlocked Congress are enhanced by the fact that it is a key issue for Hispanics, a critical voting demographic Republicans know they must court to win national elections.

The trip "gives the president sort of an opportunity to push this issue in countries from which most Americans of Latin descent or Latino Americans that are immigrants to the US come from," said Meacham.

"It helps keep these passions alive."