Obama welcomes Mexican president-elect

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday noted the "ambitious" reform agenda of Mexico's president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, as he welcomed him to the White House four days ahead of his inauguration.

Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), takes office on Saturday, and will replace Felipe Calderon from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), with whom Obama has had a close working relationship.

"This is a long-standing tradition where -- almost unique, I think, in the relationship between countries -- we meet early with the president-elect of Mexico because it symbolizes the extraordinarily close relationship we have between our two countries," Obama said.

"I'm very confident that I'm going to establish a strong personal as well as professional relationship with the president-elect, who I know has an outstanding reputation for wanting to get things done."

The youthful 46-year-old Pena Nieto's victory in July marks the return of the centrist PRI after a 12-year hiatus from national power. The PRI governed Mexico between 1929 and 2000.

Obama and Pena Nieto face an agenda of regional and global issues, likely to include the drug war raging along their shared border of more than 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers).

Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops in late 2006 in a US-supported effort to crack down on the powerful drug cartels but violence escalated during his presidency, and the death toll -- much of it in fighting between drug gangs -- rose to more than 60,000.

Pena Nieto told reporters before the talks in the Oval Office that his government was committed to a strategy of decreasing the violence and kidnappings associated with murderous drug cartels.

The United States is providing equipment and law enforcement training to Mexico under the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, a program aimed at combating drug trafficking in a country that is a major trading partner.

Pena Nieto also backed Obama's vow to pass comprehensive immigration reform during his second term which begins in January, to bring more than 10 million illegal immigrants, many from Mexico, towards legal status and citizenship.

"We fully support your proposal, sir," Pena Nieto said.

"We want to contribute towards the accomplishment so that of course, we can participate in the betterment and the well-being of so many millions of people who live in your country."

The Mexican president-elect later told CNN that fewer Mexicans were now seeking to cross the US border in search of a better life, because of economic growth and social development in their home country.

He also invited Obama to make a state visit, drawing a cheery response from the US leader: "Any excuse to go to Mexico, I'm always game."

Vice President Joe Biden will lead the US delegation to the Mexican inauguration on Saturday that includes Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and John Brennan, the White House's top counterterrorism adviser.

Pena Nieto, who also met congressional leaders in Washington, travels to Canada, the third member of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Wednesday, to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and then returns to Mexico.

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