By JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — President Barack Obama, concluding a three-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica, is cheering Mexican economic advances and pressing other Central American leaders to deal with poverty and security while reaching out to a politically powerful Latino audience back home.
Boosted by reassuring jobs numbers, Obama is calling for greater trade and economic cooperation with the U.S.'s southern neighbors, arguing that economic prosperity is the best antidote to drug and gang violence and, by extension, to the illegal immigration that the U.S. is seeking to control.
During the trip Obama has tried to modulate the exercise of U.S. influence. He has refused to insert himself in Mexico's strategy for confronting narcotrafficking, even if it means more limited access by U.S. security officials to Mexican law enforcement. In Costa Rica, he urged Central American leaders to integrate their economies, reduce their high energy costs and confront the violence in the region.
"As governments, our job is to make sure that we're doing everything we can to provide security and opportunity and ladders for success and prosperity for our people," he told the regional leaders at the start of a dinner Friday. "Economic growth that creates jobs, security for people so that they can be safe in their own neighborhoods, and development that allows people to live in dignity."
On Saturday, Obama was scheduled to speak and takes questions at a meeting at a forum in San Jose on economic growth and development.
In addition to its economic aims, the trip served as a nod by Obama to the vast Hispanic population in the United States, which heavily supported him in the 2012 election and which retains strong family and cultural ties to Latin America.
"In fact," he said Friday in a speech aimed at young people in Mexico City, "without the strong support of Latinos, including so many Mexican Americans, I would not be standing today as president of the United States. That's the truth."
An inescapable theme during the trip was the U.S. effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws — an issue of intense interest among Latinos in the United States and in Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of the 11 million immigrants illegally in the United States are from Latin America, 6 million of them from Mexico alone. Obama supports legislation that would give those immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
As Congress debates immigration legislation, Obama's bullish — even overly rosy — depiction of Mexico's economic prospects were meant to convince the U.S. public and lawmakers that Mexico no longer poses the illegal immigration threat it once did.
"The long-term solution to the challenge of illegal immigration is a growing and prosperous Mexico that creates more jobs and opportunities for young people here," he said.
Mexico, Obama said, has lifted millions of people from poverty.
But while Mexico's economy has grown, it has yet to trickle down to average workers. Huge poverty rates held steady between late 2006 and 2010, the most recent year for which government statistics are available. Between 40 and 50 percent of the population of 112 million Mexicans live in poverty, earning less than $100 a month.
Even as he tried to keep the focus on the economy and immigration, Obama did not escape the issue of drugs and violence wracking the region. In the Costa Rican capital Friday, Obama said the U.S. and Latin America share "common effects and common responsibilities" for the troubles and argued to his dining companions Friday that his country has suffered from the drug epidemic as well.
"If you go to my hometown of Chicago, and you go to some neighborhoods, they're just as violent, if not more violent than some of the countries at this table — in part because of the pernicious influence of the drug trade," he said.
Drug-fueled violence remains an undeniable part of daily life in many parts of the region. Costa Rica has fared better than many of its neighbors, but it worries about spillover from nearby countries. Honduras, for example, now has the highest homicide rate in the world, with about 7,200 people murdered last year in the tiny nation of 8 million people, most in drug-related crime.