U.S., Mexico, Canada to tackle thorny issues

It is affectionately called the "Three Amigos" summit. But the trio of North American leaders are meeting here today at a time when relations among their countries are strained by disputes over trade issues and travel restrictions that are not likely to be resolved in the short flurry of working dinners and conferences.

President Obama arrived here Sunday on his second official visit this year and quickly headed for a 45-minute meeting with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon.

In the session, which one senior U.S. official called "cordial," Calderon broached the U.S. ban on Mexican truckers, which has sparked punitive action by Mexico and cries of protectionism.

"The president made clear his commitment to work with Congress to discuss legitimate safety concerns and to work to fulfill our international obligations," the U.S. official said. "There has been a clear understanding that this issue is one that is a priority issue and one that everyone would like to see resolved as quickly as possible."

The leaders also discussed the importance of the U.S. economy in Mexico's recovery, swine flu prevention and Calderon's attempts to quash drug syndicates.

As for Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is displeased with "Buy American" provisions in the stimulus bill Obama signed into law in February. And Canada and Mexico are sparring over Ottawa's requirement that visitors from Mexico obtain visas -- triggering a retaliatory requirement that officials working in Mexico for Canada also acquire visas.

In the days before this morning's brief summit, officials from all three countries downplayed expectations that sessions would settle lingering grievances. But they stressed that given their mutual interest in economic recovery and social stability, and the deep integration of their three economies, it is crucial for the leaders to keep talking.

"I think you get in trouble when you wait too long before talking to your neighbors, and we . . . want to make sure that we have a regular dialogue with them," national security advisor James L. Jones said in briefing reporters at the White House last week.

Mexico doesn't want its drug war to dominate the conference. Its leaders are instead eager to emphasize trade issues, protectionism and North America's ability to compete as a commercial bloc in the global market.

The recession has hit Mexico hard, with all of its major sources of income -- including oil and manufacturing -- in dramatic decline. Mexico's economy is expected to contract this year by about 7%.

"To emerge quickly and in a sustained manner from this economic crisis will depend on how we can coordinate measures as a region," Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa told reporters in Mexico City. "At the beginning of the 21st century, the future of Mexico, Canada and the United States is more interrelated than ever."

Mexico is the United States' third-largest trading partner; Canada is No. 1.

Espinosa said Calderon would press Canada to remove the new visa requirement for Mexicans traveling in Canada. But Harper has already said his government won't budge.

The agenda also includes the economic downturn, clean energy and citizen safety. The latter is a special focus of a Mexican government that is waging battle with powerful drug cartels.

In Guadalajara, hundreds of soldiers and federal police were deployed throughout the city ahead of the summit. As Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara has long been home to major drug lords; however, it has not seen the same level of bloodshed as some other Mexican cities.

Mexican officials seem to be running out of patience over the trucking dispute. As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. agreed to let Mexican trucks deliver cargo in the U.S. as early as the mid-1990s. But objections from labor unions representing American truckers, coupled with safety concerns expressed by Congress, led to perpetual delays. A pilot project approved in George W. Bush's administration was terminated by Congress this year. In reprisal, Mexico imposed tariffs on $2.4 billion worth of U.S. goods.

Mexico wants the disagreement resolved no later than the end of the year.

"When the Congress decided to de-fund the program, the Obama administration told us: 'Don't worry about it. We'll work with you guys and we'll comply with international obligations,' " said a Mexican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "So we're looking forward to that."

But the official added, "That doesn't mean we're expecting Obama to come to the summit with concrete proposals; probably not."

The Obama administration is in a tough spot, not wanting to antagonize labor interests that are protective of U.S. truckers, while also wanting to comply with free-trade accords. Deputy national security advisor Michael Froman said Thursday. "We're working with Congress to address safety concerns that they have about the U.S.-Mexican trucking program, and we'll do so in a way that's consistent with our international obligations."

Mexico's drug war is bleeding over into both the U.S. and Canada. Calderon has deployed more than 45,000 troops across the country to fight heavily armed cartels that control most of the cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana shipped into the U.S. More than 11,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched the offensive nearly three years ago.

Human rights organizations are pressing Obama to raise the issue of abuses by the Mexican army in the course of the drug war. Allegations including torture, rape, slayings and illegal detentions have soared in the last two years and have jeopardized a small portion of the money -- about $100 million -- due Mexico under the three-year $1.4-billion Merida Initiative, after Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) blocked approval of a favorable report on Mexico's performance that the State Department was preparing.

Rights groups criticize the fact that the army is allowed to investigate alleged abuses by its members and handle the prosecutions within a military judiciary.

Espinosa, the foreign minister, said she was confident Mexico would be rated favorably and the money would be released.

U.S. officials are eager to demonstrate their support for Calderon, perhaps to shore up his domestic political fortunes.

Jones, Obama's national security advisor, said in the briefing: "I think the Calderon government has, in fact, performed very courageously in the face of these cartels and . . . we think that we have to do everything we can to be a helpful neighbor and a partner, to make sure that we are successful in this."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

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