Preparing for Mexico-U.S.-Canada talks

Presidential guards block a street in Toluca, Mexico, where President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet with Mexico's leader. (Mario Vazquez / AFP/Getty Images / February 17, 2014)

MEXICO CITY — Twenty years after their countries signed a landmark regional trade agreement, the presidents of the United States, Mexico and Canada will meet this week to attempt to strengthen the economic ties envisioned in that pact, correct the omissions and find ways to expand.

Trade and commerce are expected to dominate the agenda when President Obama meets with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in the Mexican city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, on Wednesday.

Large squads of soldiers and police were patrolling Toluca, the capital of Mexico state, and blocking off major roadways Monday. Schools in the central city were suspending classes. Leftist political parties were planning demonstrations, with several hundred people marching from Mexico City to Toluca.

The Peña Nieto administration has worked hard to avoid public discussion of security issues and shift attention from the bloody warfare that continues to rage against and among drug-trafficking cartels. Instead, Mexico is emphasizing investment and hopes to show off an energy industry that is on the verge of opening up to foreign money for the first time in 75 years, the result of legislation that Peña Nieto has made the hallmark of his 14-month-old government.

Both U.S. and Mexican officials see the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potentially massive trade agreement being negotiated among 12 nations, as the logical extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by Mexico, the U.S. and Canada in 1994. A more unified North America is in a better position to hold its own with China as commerce across the Pacific increases, officials contend.

"It is not in the interest of any of the three countries to reopen NAFTA but rather to take advantage of TPP negotiations to cover certain aspects not included 20 years ago," Sergio Alcocer, Mexico's deputy foreign secretary for North America, said in a news briefing.

Mexico would also like to see an easing of the many barriers at its border with the United States, which have grown more impenetrable in recent years in contrast to the spirit of NAFTA. Mexican truckers, for example, are still waiting for the kind of freer border-crossing access envisioned in NAFTA.

"We have not seen ... a smarter border as a result of efforts over the last decade ... to create a 21st century border," David Shirk, a border expert at the University of San Diego and global fellow at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, said in a conference call with reporters.   "Over the course of NAFTA we've just seen a hardening of border controls in a way that puts a real drag on cross-border flows.... [It is] the biggest drag on the NAFTA economy." He said border restrictions cause a loss of $6 billion a year.

But Obama has little to offer. He has failed to push through immigration reform — a major concern for Mexico — and has set records in deportation, mostly of Mexicans. He also comes to Mexico on the heels of allegations, based on document leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, that his government was spying on Peña Nieto.

Obama is seeking what's called fast-track authority or trade-promotion authority to pass his ambitious free-trade agenda through Congress. That means lawmakers would agree to vote on an agreement as is — offering no amendments that would force the president to go back and renegotiate with the trading partners.

However, a coalition of labor, environmental and consumer groups opposes TPP, worrying that it would send manufacturing jobs overseas and fall short of environmental and safety protections. With the aim of keeping their base happy in an election year, many Democrats are breaking with the White House to oppose the deals.

Peña Nieto, meanwhile, is confronting extremely low approval ratings at home, which could eventually limit his ability to push through the legislative initiatives he maintains are vital to economic growth, which has been sluggish.

The Mexican government is putting a lot of stock in its oil and gas industry, sure to be high on the three leaders' agenda. Peña Nieto scored an important political victory by succeeding in changing the Mexican Constitution to allow private and foreign investment in the giant state oil and gas monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

But American and international oil businesses are still waiting for many of the details to be hammered out before they decide whether to invest in Mexico.

Although security may not be at the top of the leaders' agenda, it perhaps ought to be. The meeting in Toluca will be taking place not even 60 miles from Michoacan state, which has teetered perilously close to civil war between criminal traffickers and vigilante groups.

Last month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was concerned about Michoacan and that the U.S. was "prepared to be helpful if we can."

For a Mexican government trying to downplay reports of violence and distance itself from the bosom-buddy relationship that former President Felipe Calderon developed, however, Kerry's remarks triggered a bristling nationalistic response.

American help "is a theme that's not under discussion," Mexico's deputy interior secretary, Roberto Campa, told El Universal newspaper.

Alcocer, of the Foreign Ministry, denied that security was being relegated to a back burner.

"Having a secure hemisphere is how we can aspire to be more competitive and dynamic," he said.

Mexico is also likely to register another complaint with Canada's Harper on his government's requirement that Mexicans hold visas to travel to Canada. Mexican Ambassador to Canada Francisco Suarez Davila said negotiations continued with Canada but that there was no resolution in sight.

The Toluca summit is the seventh such trilateral meeting since 2005.

"From a diplomatic viewpoint, the summit will be a success. The stage" is set, leftist Sen. Manuel Camacho Solis wrote in an opinion column Monday.

"What will not be on the table, but is of great concern to Mexico … is the real capacity of Mexico to have economic growth that distinguishes it from other emerging economies, to recover peace and governability in regions where institutions have collapsed, and to contain corruption."

wilkinson@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Wilkinson reported from Mexico City and Hennessey from Washington. Times staff writer Richard Fausset in Mexico City contributed to this report.