Obama talks trade with Mexican counterpart

Swine flu, drug cartels also summit focus

By Jennifer Loven
Associated Press / August 10, 2009

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GUADALAJARA, Mexico - President Obama pressed for a new tone in the United States’ relationship with Mexico but found no immediate progress yesterday on the divisions between him and President Felipe Calderon over the pace of US drug-fighting aid and a ban on Mexican trucks north of the border.

Obama kicked off his second trip to Mexico as president with a friendly 45-minute meeting with Calderon that touched on the vast trade relationship between their two countries, their cooperation on swine flu and the violent Mexican gangs dominating the drug trade on both sides of the border. Their talks came before the start of a lightning-quick three-way summit between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The meeting of Obama, Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper began over dinner at a cultural institution in this town near the mountains. The summit’s formal talks, the fifth for the three countries, were taking place today, followed by a joint appearance before reporters at midday.

During the separate sit-down between Obama and Calderon, the Mexican leader raised his concerns about the speed of implementation of the United States’ three-year, $1.4 billion drug-fighting package known as the Merida Initiative. One $100 million installment is being delayed over rising concerns among some in Congress about the Mexican army’s abuses.

The US law requires Congress to withhold some funding unless the State Department reports Mexico is not violating human rights during its anticartel crackdown, which started in 2006.

Obama told Calderon that human rights is a major priority for him, but also assured him that the State Department is working to prepare a report that recognizes all Mexico’s efforts to prevent abuses, said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in order to more freely describe private meetings.

Drug violence has killed more than 11,000 people since Mexico launched its crackdown. Mexican cities are essentially under siege, and the killings are spilling over the border into the United States and as far as Canada.

Calderon also quizzed Obama on his earlier promise to restore a canceled pilot program that had allowed Mexican truckers to travel into the United States, the official said. The North American Free Trade Agreement required the United States to grant Mexican trucks full access to its highways by January 2000, but domestic opposition stalled that plan until a 2007 pilot program allowed some trucks. Facing opposition from US labor unions and consumer groups, Obama signed a spending bill that included a ban on spending for the program. Mexico retaliated by imposing tariffs on dozens of US products ranging from fruit and wine to washing machines.

Obama told Calderon he would work “to try to move forward’’ but also said Congress has “legitimate safety concerns’’ about Mexican trucks, the official said.

US-Mexico relations went on a roller-coaster ride during the tenure of former president George W. Bush, driven by a divide over the Iraq war, the United States’ building of a border fence and Bush’s failure to secure immigration reform. While Obama has, like Bush, emphasized beefed-up border security, he has pledged to renew efforts to push through an immigration overhaul, including a citizenship path for illegal immigrants. And during his April visit, Obama made a welcome acknowledgment to Mexicans that Americans share the blame for violence south of the border because of drug consumption and gun trafficking.

A major topic of discussion for the three leaders today will be the now-global swine flu epidemic believed to have started in Mexico in April just before Obama’s last trip, unbeknownst to the White House. The United States earned huge points with its southern neighbor for not joining the countries banning flights, halting trade and taking other actions that Mexico considered unfairly punitive.