MEXICO CITY - President Barack Obama could have picked Cancún, with its sugary white beaches and turquoise waves, for his first official visit to Mexico this week. He could have picked a remote retreat in the mountains, or a photo-friendly site like the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
Instead, Obama is plunging into Mexico City, a chaotic, densely packed and politically explosive metropolis of 20 million people - the kind of place that makes Secret Service agents nervous and gives motorcade drivers headaches. Of 29 U.S. presidential visits to Mexico since 1909, only five have been to the capital - all of them Democratic presidents.
Obama flies in Thursday for a two-day visit en route to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where he will discuss drug trafficking, energy and the global economic crisis with leaders from across the hemisphere. The choice to stop in Mexico City was deliberate, 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 told reporters on Monday. But visiting Mexico City 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," Rottinghaus 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 flashpoint in President Felipe Calderón's crackdown on drug cartels. Police recently captured two alleged kingpins 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 former 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 Yucatán Peninsula city of Mérida in 2007, protesters angry over the Iraq war and the U.S. failure to reform its immigration laws hurled chunks of concrete at his hotel and trashed the Mérida City Hall.
Foreign presidents visiting Mexico or the United States can usually choose where they want to go, unless they're attending summits attended by dozens of leaders. Obama has enjoyed 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 a speech before 200,000 people in Berlin during his presidential campaign. Earlier this month he visited London, Prague and Ankara, Turkey, a trip that included unscripted question-and-answer sessions with regular citizens.
"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."
So far, Mexicans have been lukewarm on Obama. Polls conducted before the U.S. presidential election showed Mexicans overwhelmingly favored him over Republican John McCain. Still, many are worried that the Democratic president will backslide on free trade and be reluctant to push for the legalization millions of undocumented workers.
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 even worse lately because of new highway projects.
Marches and political protests are near-daily occurrences in the city's colonial center. In 2006, demonstrators occupied a stretch of the main Reforma Avenue for six weeks to protest presidential election results.
On Monday, a coalition of leftist groups said they 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.-Mexico relations.
The White House has not released Obama's schedule. But if he travels to the Mexican presidential mansion, Obama is likely to pass Chapultepec Castle, where invading U.S. soldiers fought teenage cadets in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War.
Not far away is a monument commemorating the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz. There's even a National Museum of the Interventions, which chronicles the invasions, political meddling and assorted humiliations that Mexico has suffered at the hands of the United States and other countries.
William Howard Taft was the first president to make an official visit to Mexico, meeting with dictator Porfirio Díaz in the border town of Ciudad Juárez in 1909, according to the U.S. State Department. But 38 years passed before a U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, visited the Mexican capital in 1947.
Since then only four other presidents have come to Mexico City: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.