By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico must give greater priority to economic cooperation and education in relations with the United States rather than allowing the fight against organized crime to take center stage, a senior Mexican official said on Monday.
Mexico has spent the past six years locked in a bloody fight with powerful drug cartels whose killings, kidnappings and extortion have marred the country's image, particularly in the United States, where it ships nearly 80 percent of its exports.
President Enrique Pena Nieto is keen to rewrite the script, focusing his efforts on the economy, which has grown at a faster pace than the United States' in the last three years.
Pena Nieto's conservative predecessor, Felipe Calderon, staked his name on crushing the gangs, but by the time he left office at the end of November nearly 70,000 people had died in the violence, and his efforts were widely condemned as a failure.
Sergio Alcocer, Mexico's deputy foreign minister responsible for the United States and Canada, said the focus on tackling the cartels and border security meant many of the benefits of Mexico's ties with the United States had been ignored.
"The U.S. population needs to see Mexico is an important part of daily life," he said in an interview with Reuters.
"We're not just a geographical accident, we're not a source of problems, on the contrary. We're an area of opportunity and a source of how problems can be resolved."
Too often, cross-border debates on security and immigration had obscured the valuable contribution made by Mexican migrants to the United States, while Mexico had not made the most of its northern neighbor in modernizing its economy, Alcocer said.
Calderon spent much of his time issuing warnings about the dangers of organized crime in Mexico, and frequently berated the United States for failing to reduce its appetite for illicit drugs - or cut the supply of illegal weapons heading south.
Pena Nieto has pledged to keep up the fight against organized crime, but has focused far less on the drug war in public than his predecessor, helping to create the impression that the violence in Latin America's second biggest economy is easing.
A monthly survey conducted since April 2009 on Mexicans' perception of public security rose to its most positive level in December, Pena Nieto's first full month in office - although homicides in the country hit a three month high that month.
Alcocer said the government wanted to find ways of stepping up cooperation with the United States to make North America more competitive, pointing to industries like carmaking, aerospace and energy. He noted that U.S. know-how in exploiting shale oil and gas would be particularly useful for Mexico.
There would also be a push to increase the number of Mexicans studying in the United States, and vice versa, he said.
In the 2011/2012 academic year, there were some 13,900 Mexicans studying at U.S. universities, according to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education.
That put Mexico in ninth place in the list of countries sending students there - behind nations like Vietnam, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.
The latest Mexican figure was a drop from 14,850 students in the United States in 2008/2009, and occurred in a period during which the number of Mexicans receiving a university degree or higher has risen rapidly. The total has almost doubled from 6.8 million in 2000 to more than 12.9 million in 2010.
Pena Nieto's government aims to change the picture.
"Mexico could easily have around 30,000 to 40,000 in the United States, double what we have now," said Alcocer.
This was the target the government was working toward and to achieve it Mexico must improve English teaching and devote more funds to grants and scholarships, he said.
Attracting U.S. students to Mexico seems a bigger challenge, and the numbers have fallen sharply during the drug war.
Between the 2010/11 and 2009/10 academic years - the latest figures available - the number of Americans attending Mexican universities fell by more than 40 percent. At 4,167, the 2011 total was the lowest since the end of the 1980s.
"In large measures this is due to the widespread perception in the United States that our country is a violent country," said Alcocer.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; editing by Christopher Wilson)