Obama to meet Mexico, Canada leaders

2012-04-02 11:02

Washington - US President Barack Obama on Monday hosts the leaders of Mexico and Canada at the White House for a North American summit overshadowed by the raging drug war in Mexico and violence on the US border.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper join Obama in the talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which seeks to more closely integrate the economies of the three countries.

But spiralling violence along the US-Mexican border has cast a pall over trade, with drug cartels fighting for control of routes into the United States and Mexico complaining of arms purchased in the United States flowing south.

Monday's summit is scheduled to last only a few hours: the three leaders and their top aides will meet, then Obama will host Harper and Calderon for lunch.

The three will then meet in private, and conclude the event by holding a joint press conference.

No major agreements are expected to be signed at the summit, diplomatic sources told AFP ahead of talks.

But the summit gives Obama a chance to strengthen his support among US Hispanic voters. Polls show he already has strong support among US Hispanics, the bulk of whom are Mexican-American.

Through NAFTA, Canada is the largest market for US exports, followed by Mexico. The United States in turn is the largest market for both Mexican and Canadian exports.

Separately, security cooperation has been increasing between the three nations.

Preparing for the future

Closer ties began with the $1.6bn Merida Initiative, which Calderon signed in 2008 with then-US president George W Bush. The initiative provides funds for anti-drug operations in both Mexico and Central America.

On March 27, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta met in Ottawa with Canadian Defence Minister Peter Mackay and the heads of Mexico's army and navy to discuss anti-narcotics operations.

"This is the first time we've done it, but certainly from the US perspective, we would hope it could be institutionalised, because these challenges are not going away," a senior US defence official travelling with Panetta said.

Calderon turned the Mexican military loose on drug trafficking cartels immediately upon taking office in 2006, but the violence has only grown, with the toll from drug-related violence rising to more than 50 000 people over that period.

Calderon leaves office in December after six years as president, with strong support in Washington for the policies he pursued.

But the Obama administration is already preparing for the future, and the possible victory of Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico's July 1 presidential election.

Recent polls show Pena Nieto with a commanding lead over the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, with the leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador a distant third.

The PRI governed Mexico for 71 years until the PAN's Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000. Calderon is only the country's second PAN president.