- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon agreed Thursday to deepen their cooperation in combating drug violence and declared a breakthrough in efforts to end a long-standing dispute over cross-border trucking.

During a joint news conference at the White House, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Calderon for his “extraordinary courage” in fighting the violent drug cartels that have been responsible for deaths on both sides of the border. Mr. Obama pledged to speed up U.S. aid to train and equip Mexican forces to help in their efforts.

“Mexico has a full partner with the United States,” Mr. Obama said. “Our people have a right to be safe in their communities.”

Mr. Calderon’s visit comes three weeks after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death in northern Mexico with a gun smuggled in from the United States. The incident raised questions in the United States about Mexico’s ability to control violence and has Obama administration officials considering arming U.S. agents working across the border to ensure their safety.

Mr. Calderon offered his condolences to Zapata’s family and said he would work to bring his killers to justice.

“His death must urge us to work together to ensure a prosperous and peaceful future for our region,” Mr. Calderon said.

An Obama administration official said before the news conference that the two leaders agreed to a phased-in plan that would authorize both Mexican and U.S. long-haul carriers to engage in cross-border operations, provided the Mexican trucks meet U.S. safety standards. Both countries were given this authority under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, but the United States has refused to allow Mexican trucks access amid concerns over its ability to meet America’s stringent safety and environmental standards.

Mexico has placed higher tariffs on dozens of U.S. products in response to the unresolved dispute. The official said Mexico will agree to lift those tariffs in phases, with all tariffs lifted once the first Mexican carrier receives authorization to travel on U.S. roads.

Negotiating teams are still working out final details of the plan and are expected to send an agreement to Congress this spring, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the plan ahead of Obama’s public statement.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Calderon discussed a wide range of issues, including the shooting of the U.S. agent, before speaking to reporters.

Lamenting the incident, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. earlier this week told a congressional panel: “We have to make sure that those kinds of incidents are not repeated, and to the extent that that involves the potential arming of them, that’s something I think we have to consider.” Administration officials said the White House has been working closely with Mr. Calderon’s government on how to protect U.S. personnel working in Mexico, but they wouldn’t say whether Mr. Obama would press the Mexican leader to allow U.S. agents to be armed.

U.S. and Mexican officials have emphasized that Mr. Calderon’s visit was planned before Zapata’s killing.

The contentious debate over immigration dominated Mr. Calderon’s visit to the White House in May, shortly after Arizona passed a law that makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally and requires police to question people about their immigration status if there’s reason to suspect they’re illegal. Mexico’s government strongly opposes the law, and the Mexican Senate this week urged Mr. Calderon to again vehemently make their opposition known to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama also opposes the Arizona law; the White House said that comprehensive immigration reform remains high on Mr. Obama’s agenda and that the president would update Mr. Calderon on the state of the immigration debate in the United States.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Calderon also were expected to discuss U.S. aid to help support Mexico in the drug war. A senior administration official said the United States plans to speed up implementation of the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, with $900 million to be doled out by the end of the year. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to preview the announcement.

The announcement comes as the State Department issued a report praising Mexico’s government for increased drug seizures and better efforts to combat narcotics trafficking and money laundering. But it said Mexican production of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines was rising rapidly and that cartels were becoming even more dangerous through use of sniper rifles, grenades and increasingly military tactics.

Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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