Monday, August 10, 2009

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

Mr. Obama kicked off his second trip to Mexico as president with a friendly 45-minute meeting with Mr. 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.

Often called the “Three Amigos” summit, the meeting of Mr. Obama, Mr. 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 Monday, followed by a meeting-capping joint appearance before reporters at midday.

During the separate sit-down between Mr. Obama and Mr. 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 U.S. law requires Congress to withhold some funding unless the State Department reports Mexico is not violating human rights in the process of its anti-cartel crackdown that started in 2006.

Mr. Obama told Mr. 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 of Mexico’s efforts to prevent abuses, said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the 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 living essentially under siege, and the killings are spilling over the border into the United States and as far away as Canada.

On Sunday, a lawyer known for defending high-profile drug-trafficking suspects was fatally shot at a street market in the northern city of Monterrey. A Monterrey police official who was not authorized to be quoted by name said lawyer Silvia Raquenel Villanueva was killed by gunfire.

Nobody else was hurt in the shooting at the normally crowded Pulga Rio market, suggesting an execution-style attack. The official said there was no immediate information on the possible motive or identity of the killers.

Mr. Calderon also quizzed Mr.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 requires the United States to grant Mexican trucks full access to its highways by January 2000, and a 2007 pilot program allowed some trucks. Facing opposition from U.S. 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 U.S. products ranging from fruit and wine to washing machines.

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

A major topic of discussion between Mr. Obama and Mr. Calderon and for the three leaders on Monday will be the now-global swine flu epidemic believed to have started in Mexico in April just before Mr. Obama’s last trip, unbeknownst to the White House. An Obama administration aide returned home sick.

But what could have become a diplomatic downer turned into a bright spot.

Mr. Obama was never in danger, the aide and his family recovered, and the two nations cooperated extensively on the flu outbreak through the spring and beyond. 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.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Calderon and Mr. Harper will look for ways to build on that earlier partnership to handle an expected new wave of cases during North America’s upcoming flu season. John Brennan, Mr. Obama’s chief homeland security aide, said it is as important to further link up health officials and ready vaccine and antiviral supplies as it is for the three leaders to publicly reinforce a determination not to panic when cases arise.

The three leaders also are expected to take a joint stand on a recent problem in their hemisphere the June coup in Honduras that saw President Manuel Zelaya ousted by the military.

Mr. Obama has no separate session with Mr. Harper alone. The Canadian leader will see the president on Sept. 16 in Washington.

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