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Will Obama provide Mexico's besieged president a much-needed lifeline?

President Enrique Peña Nieto's meeting with President Obama on Tuesday presents the beleaguered leader with an opportunity to make highly anticipated progress on security and economic issues.

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto arrives at the White House for a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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When President Enrique Peña Nieto sits down with US President Obama on Tuesday, the scandal-plagued Mexican leader will be under intense pressure to ensure that their discussion – which will touch on security, immigration, trade, and economic issues – produces tangible results.

Both Mexicans and the international community originally expected Mr. Peña Nieto to bring much-needed change to Mexico. But that image has been dramatically undercut by outrage over the poor handling of a case in which 43 students went missing after being handed over to police, as well as several recent political scandals. Now, Mexicans are watching to see if he can work effectively with his powerful northern neighbor in a way that could compensate for his growing political and economic woes.

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“Given that the Mexican public is fed up with the widespread corruption and lack of accountability, any perceptions of Peña Nieto getting the short end of the stick will definitely further deteriorate his local popularity,” says Dwight Dyer, a Mexico City-based senior analyst with the consulting firm Control Risks. “I can hardly see any outcomes that will raise his international standing, given that the agenda is likely to point to areas where there have been a persistent lack of progress in recent years.”

The two leaders have indicated that they plan to discuss several joint initiatives on border issues, immigration, trade agreements, and economic collaborations. Among the most important of these is the Merida Initiative, a bilateral agreement started in 2008 to address Mexico's security concerns. Political experts believe that it will continue to be the key means for the US to improve border security and encourage a stronger justice system in Mexico.

“It seems like now would be the right moment to double down on those goals that were introduced in the Merida Initiative,” says Christopher Wilson, a senior associate with the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, noting that the initiative, which was originally negotiated between former presidents Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush, has yet to be formally updated by Peña Nieto.

“Now would be a good time to breathe more life into bilateral security cooperation while making it mesh with the security plans of Peña Nieto,” Wilson says, referring to a December proposal by the Mexican president to create a single national police force and crack down on municipal security corruption.

The Merida Initiative was last renewed and expanded by the Obama and Calderón administrations in 2011. At the time they pledged to empower local communities and civil society groups, strengthen Mexico’s rule of law, and modernize the border as ways to further fight organized crime.

The programs have led to modest improvements, including the arrests of some high-profile crime leaders. Yet security experts say that such efforts have been largely undermined by the Mexican government’s refusal to follow through on its own initiatives, such as the full implementation of its 2008 justice reform laws.

Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration and improved relations with Cuba will also be fodder for conversation. So too will Mexico’s first private energy auction in nearly eight decades. Peña Nieto has staked much of his remaining political capital on ensuring that the desired US investors come to the auction, which could bring in much-needed investment and help turn around Mexico's dramatic drop in oil production in the past decade. 

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“The Peña Nieto government really needs to show tangible, near-term results from the upstream opening,” says Ford Tanner, a senior analyst with IHS Energy, an international energy think tank, referring to a constitutional law change that allows private companies to extract and produce oil and gas. “I would expect Peña Nieto to underscore Mexico’s eagerness for US companies to participate aggressively and to express his government’s progress on drafting competitive terms for upstream investors.”