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Ask many Canadian tourists what images they associate with Mexico, and a holiday stereotype of mariachis, margaritas and marimbas will no doubt emerge. But Mexico is much more than beautiful beaches. With an expanding middle class, a 4-per-cent annual growth rate and a democratic government, many believe Mexico is the obvious country to focus on as Canada reshapes its foreign policy in the Americas.

Already Canada's third-largest trading partner, with $20-billion a year in two-way trade, Mexico is home to foreign operations of 2,500 Canadian companies, including Manulife Financial Corp., Rio Tinto Alcan, and Power Corp. of Canada. Mexicans assemble everything from BlackBerrys for Research In Motion Ltd. to aircraft parts for Bombardier Inc.

With an economy that is the world's 11th largest by World Bank estimates, the country of 113 million is already a vibrant mecca of world-class film, art and food. In the past five years, the number of Canadian tourists visiting Mexico doubled to 1.5 million – in spite of travel advisories and ubiquitous headlines about the violence of drug cartels.

It is this violence which poses Mexico's biggest challenge, to both its security and its governance. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, more than 40,000 people have been killed. There have been countless stories of headless corpses and mass graves, of corrupt local police and politicians – even though the violent death rate is still lower than it is in Brazil and Central America.

Many experts believe that by forging closer political, economic and development ties with Mexico, Canada could enhance its credibility in the Americas, help to fortify hemispheric security, and assist Canadian companies and investors to take advantage of this huge and growing marketplace.

In the past, Ottawa has been reticent to deepen its links with Mexico owing to concerns that a closer relationship with one partner in the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) could dilute its special relationship with the other, far larger, partner. However, with Washington increasingly focused on Mexico's challenges and opportunities, it is in Canada's interest to deepen its ties south of the Rio Grande, experts say. The prosperity and security of all three countries are inextricably linked.

"Embracing the Americas should start with Mexico," says Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. "While for many years we ignored our Latin neighbours south of the Rio Grande, the Americans have never thought this way. … We also play back into our principal relationship with the U.S."

As part of a shift in direction toward the Americas in 2006, the Harper government appointed a secretary of state for Latin America. However, the Americas initiative was underfunded, and poorly implemented, according to an internal review, and the effort never really moved beyond diplomatic niceties.

In 2009, Ottawa introduced a visa requirement for Mexican visitors, to curb the unduly high number of Mexicans seeking asylum in Canada. This dealt the relationship a severe psychological blow and created insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles for many Mexicans, who had to submit everything from mortgage documents to marriage certificates to apply for a visa.

Revoking the visa requirement would go a long way toward restoring good will and many argue it makes sense now that Canada has reformed its domestic refugee program.

As for the security challenge, experts say Canada could be doing much more to assist Latin America to combat the drug epidemic, which some have likened to Africa's struggle with AIDS. Mexico's $20-billion-a-year drug trade is fuelled by an insatiable appetite for cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. The drug cartels, in turn, get their guns from American suppliers, allowing the transnational criminal enterprises to operate drug distribution lines from the streets of Buenos Aires to Vancouver.

And yet Mexico's urgent requests for more police training have been met with only token gestures. The RCMP has dispatched fewer than a dozen officers to help train their Mexican counterparts; in comparison, 1,000 police trainers are heading to Afghanistan.

As well as sending more officers to train Mexican police, Canada could also consider joining Ameripol, a regional police force formed in 2007 to support national efforts to combat transnational criminal networks.

Judicial reform – helping judges to be more efficient and maintain their independence – is another area where experts say Canada can make a difference. "Mexico needs legal and police reform," says Stephen Clarkson, a political economist from the University of Toronto who specializes in Mexico. "The payoff would be great. We have a big interest in building up Mexico."

Canada could also reconsider its development approach. While Mexico is too wealthy to qualify for official development assistance (its gross domestic product per capita is about $10,000 a year), 40 million people still live in poverty. Canada could expand the small but successful seasonal workers' program, which sees about 17,000 Mexicans travel north to pick tobacco and tomatoes on Canadian farms every year.

Canada has, in the past, invested in strengthening the country's democratic institutions. Ottawa advised Mexico on its 2003 Freedom of Information Act, the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute, and the reform of its career civil service. It has also helped fortify Mexico's domestic human rights. The Harper government could choose to focus on one signature area – for example, helping Mexico to establish one national police force modelled on the RCMP – and see a dramatic impact.

"The lack of a common purpose has made it difficult for the two countries to take advantage of the rapid expansion of bilateral contacts in the last 15 years and to funnel all those efforts into making the Canada-Mexico relationship relevant for each country and for the region," says Isabel Studer, a Mexican academic and contributor to the coming book Canada and Mexico: Building Bridges to a Better Future.

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