MEXICO CITY (AP) _ After trying to soothe Mexico's government, President Clinton is going directly to the people with assurances that America is a respectful ally that views Mexicans as equal partners. ``We have to make this relationship work together,'' he declared.

The message is a natural follow-up to talks Tuesday with President Ernesto Zedillo. A series of modest agreements on immigration, drugs and trade appeared to defuse rising tensions between the two governments, but did not address a widespread perception among Mexicans that America considers them a second-rate neighbor.

``We're here because we know that we have to make this relationship work together beyond party politics _ within our countries and across our borders,'' Clinton said.

``We share more than a 2,000-mile border,'' he said at a joint news conference with Zedillo. ``We also share a vision of what the border should be in the 21st century _ a safe, clean, efficient model of prosperity and cooperation joining our people, not a barrier that divides them.''

In an address today to the public at the National Auditorium, the president was saying it is time to move beyond the friction of drugs and immigration and focus on the benefits of getting along.

``This relationship is about far more than resolving our problems,'' he told Zedillo. ``It's about seizing the real opportunities to make our people more prosperous and secure on the edge of a new century.''

He said the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in January 1994, is a prime example.

The pact ``helped to raise our exports to Mexico to an all-time high and helped Mexico to bounce back from a wrenching recession,'' he said.

Three top administration officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, made the same pitch to American businessmen today. Latin American envoy Mack McLarty said the United States must broaden free trade throughout the region. ``If we stand still, we will surely lose ground,'' he said.

Lingering opposition to NAFTA has stalled Clinton's drive for congressional authority to negotiate ``fast track'' trade deals throughout Latin America.

Clinton and Zedillo said U.S.-Mexican trade has increased 60 percent since NAFTA passed, and now totals nearly $150 billion. ``There are some people still who assert in the United States that it has not (worked), but it has,'' Clinton declared.

Zedillo said the pact produced ``more and improved jobs'' for Mexico and the United States.

However, U.S. trade with Mexico went from a $1.7 billion surplus in 1993 to a record deficit of $16 billion in 1996. Critics claim up to 600,000 jobs were lost because companies found cheaper Mexican labor under NAFTA.

The Clinton administration attributes the trade imbalance to the 1995 peso crisis and the strong dollar.

Judith Strack, an American who has lived in Mexico City for 20 years, said the two-day trip and Clinton's record on Mexico have helped ease animosity toward the United States.

``Clinton has done much to counteract hostility against Americans here,'' said Strack.

Clinton also may have smoothed some ruffled feathers by acknowledging that Mexico's drug scourge is fueled by America's insatiable demand for drugs. ``Let's be frank here among friends,'' he said, adding that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population but consumes about half the illegal drugs.

At a state dinner later, Clinton observed that ``Mexico's leaders and political parties are opening the doors of democracy wider than ever.''

In return, Zedillo called the relationship between Mexico and the United States ``increasingly broad, increasingly complex, increasingly promising.''

Fast-track authority would give Clinton the ability to negotiate trade agreements under expedited procedures that require Congress to accept or reject them without amendments.

Clinton's power in this area expired at the end of 1993, and the administration has been unable to gain renewed authority because of an impasse over the president's insistence that he be allowed to include safeguards on worker rights and the environment as part of any new trade agreements. Republicans don't want to give him that broad a negotiating mandate.

Clinton also was expected to applaud Mexico for repaying a $13.5 billion U.S.-engineered rescue package. The payment would not have been as prompt without the benefits of NAFTA, the administration says.

Clinton was carving out time for sightseeing. He was having lunch with Zedillo in the town of Tlaxcala, the site of the oldest permanent Catholic structure in the New World _ the San Francisco monastery complex.