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Obama shuns scenic, serene for Mexico’s chaotic capital

MEXICO CITY – President Barack Obama could have picked Cancun, with its sugary white beaches and turquoise waves, for his first official visit to Mexico this week. Or he could have picked a photo-friendly site like the Mayan ruins of Palenque.

Instead, Obama is plunging into Mexico City, a chaotic, crime-ridden metropolis of 20 million people where street protests snarl traffic nearly every day – the kind of place that gives headaches to Secret Service agents and motorcade drivers alike.

Of the 29 previous U.S. presidential visits to Mexico since 1909, only five have been to the capital. Obama flies in Thursday for a two-day visit before heading to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

At a time when the U.S. and Mexico are working closely together to tackle issues such as immigration, border security and rising drug-related violence, the choice to visit Mexico City was a deliberate diplomatic gesture, said Denis McDonough, one of Obama’s security advisers.

“It’s meant to send a signal of respect, mutual respect with our Mexican neighbors,” McDonough said.

‘Walking a very fine line’

The trip is a gamble, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who is writing a book about presidential travel and speeches.

“This is a really potentially dangerous area, a place in a country that is fraught with these security problems,” he said. “They’re walking a very fine line.”

Although there have been no attacks on foreign dignitaries in Mexico City, the capital has become a flash point in President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on drug cartels. Police recently captured two alleged kingpins, Vicente Carrillo Leyva of the Juarez Cartel and Vicente Zambada Niebla of the Sinaloa Cartel, in the city. Last year, drug gangs gunned down Mexico’s federal police chief and a top intelligence official in the city.

It has been 12 years since Bill Clinton made the last visit to Mexico City by any American president. George W. Bush’s first official visit to Mexico took place at the ranch of then Mexican President Vicente Fox in rural Guanajuato state in 2001. Most of his subsequent visits to Mexico were multination summits at heavily guarded beach resorts and hotels.

During Bush’s last visit, to the Yucatan Peninsula city of Merida in 2007, protesters hurled chunks of concrete at his hotel and trashed the Merida City Hall.

At summits attended by dozens of world leaders, the White House has no choice in the venue. But Obama has enjoyed his popularity abroad – and as a result, he’s been more likely to seek out crowds, said Jeffrey Peake, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies presidential trips.

In July, Obama gave an outdoor speech before a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin during his presidential campaign. Earlier this month he visited London, Prague and Ankara, Turkey – including two unscripted town hall meetings with students.

“Obama’s last trip was focused on big cities and big capitals and trying to get as much coverage as possible,” Peake said. “It makes sense for him to go to Mexico City because it’s the largest city on the continent. In Europe, the Middle East and now in Latin America, his target is as much the publics of those nations where he’s going as the governments.”

Unpleasant reminders

Mexico City and its suburbs make up the world’s second-biggest metropolis after Tokyo. The city has only one airport, and its infamous traffic jams have gotten worse because of highway construction projects ahead of Mexico’s 2010 Bicentennial.

Marches and political protests occur regularly in the city’s colonial center. In 2006, demonstrators occupied an 8-mile stretch of the main Reforma Avenue for six weeks to protest presidential election results.

On Monday, a coalition of leftist groups said it planned to protest Obama’s visit near the city’s Chapultepec Park.

The city is also full of unpleasant reminders of the worst moments in U.S.-Mexican relations. If Obama travels to the Mexican presidential mansion, he is likely to pass Chapultepec Castle, where invading U.S. soldiers fought teenage cadets in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. A gleaming marble monument honors the “child heroes.”

Not far away is a monument commemorating the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz. There’s even a National Museum of the Interventions, which is dedicated to chronicling the invasions, political meddling and assorted humiliations that Mexico has endured from the United States and other countries.

William Taft was the first president to make an official visit to Mexico, meeting with dictator Porfirio Diaz in the border town of Ciudad Juarez in 1909, according to the U.S. State Department. But 38 years passed before a U.S. president would visit the Mexican capital – Harry Truman in 1947.

Since then only four other presidents have come to Mexico City – John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Clinton – all Democrats.

That’s probably no coincidence, Rottinghaus said.

“Some Democratic presidents have been more internationalists or engaged in human rights issues … and those kinds of things have an effect on which U.S. presidents tend to go where,” he said.

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