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US President Barack Obama heads to Costa Rica on Friday for a summit with Central American leaders on trade, immigration and the drug war after renewing security ties with Mexico.
The seven leaders of Central America, plus the Dominican Republic, are expected to press Obama to step up US assistance against violent drug cartels that use the region as a stopover for US-bound cocaine.
The US military has sent ships in the Pacific and Caribbean to intercept drugs, deployed 200 Marines in Guatemala and shared radar intelligence with Honduras. But top US generals warned that budget cuts could hamper the mission.
"We need resolute support from the US government to attack our common drug enemy -- drug trafficking -- since regrettably Honduras and other countries of the region see the dead in a war we didn't start," said Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.
Obama began his three-day trip in Mexico on Thursday and will deliver a speech on a domestic issue of high interest in this region -- US immigration reform -- on Friday before heading to San Jose for the summit.
After talks in Mexico City's historic National Palace on Thursday, the US leader and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto sought to shift the focus of their ties from the drug war to their huge economic ties.
"Mexico and the United States have one of the largest, most dynamic relationships of any two countries on Earth," Obama told a news conference, referring to $500 billion in annual trade between the neighbors.
"And yet, we all don't always hear about all aspects of these extraordinary ties because too often, two issues get attention: security or immigration."
But the fight against cartels remained at the forefront of their talks, as the two countries adjust to Pena Nieto's decision to put control of Mexico's security strategy in the hands of his powerful interior ministry.
"I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security even as the nature of that cooperation will evolve," Obama said, downplaying any concerns about the shift.
"It's up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations including the United States."
Pena Nieto stressed that the new strategy was aimed at achieving "better results" by focusing on reducing the wave of murders that has left more than 70,000 people dead since 2006, while insisting on his commitment to battling the cartels.
"These objectives are not contradictory," Pena Nieto said.
His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, forged unprecedented security ties with Washington by allowing US agencies to deal directly with Mexican counterparts during his six-year administration.
The United States has pledged $1.9 billion in aid, including police training and crime-fighting equipment, to help Mexico fight the drug gangs that feed huge quantities of cocaine, marijuana and heroin to US addicts.
But the new Mexican government now wants to channel all security matters through a "one-stop window" -- the interior ministry, which has been tasked with coordinating Mexico's fight against organized crime.
With 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States -- two thirds of them from Mexico -- Obama's push for comprehensive immigration reform was also discussed.
The US leader said he was "optimistic" that a bipartisan bill in the US Senate would be approved. Pena Nieto skirted a question about the topic, saying it was an "internal issue" and that he wished Obama "success."
Some 500 people held a protest outside the US embassy in Mexico City before Obama's arrival, demanding that US immigration reform include a provision allowing relatives of migrants to join their families across the border.