Mexico violence high on NAFTA summit agenda

US President Barack Obama welcomes the leaders of Mexico and Canada at the White House Monday for a North American summit, with talks expected to focus on rampant violence from the drug war in Mexico.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) talks are being held as presidential election campaigns are ramping up in Mexico and the United States, and for Mexico's Felipe Calderon, who cannot seek re-election, it will be his last summit.

Spiraling violence sparked by Mexican drug cartels seeking access to the drug trade in the the United States is however likely to overshadow Calderon's discussions with Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

More than 50,000 people have been killed during the Calderon presidency as his government vigorously pursued the US-supported "war on drugs" and cracked down on drug trafficking gangs. Most of those people were killed in turf wars among the competing drug cartels.

Calderon's close relationship with Washington has resulted in an unprecedented level of security cooperation between the two countries, which have a long history of viewing each other with suspicion.

Washington has strong sympathy for Calderon, from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), who leaves office in December after six years as Mexico's president.

The Obama administration however 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.

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.

On March 5, Vice President Joe Biden met in Mexico City with the main presidential candidates - Pena Nieto, PAN's Josefina Vazquez Mota, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Recent polls show the Pena Nieto with a commanding lead over Vazquez Mota, with the leftist candidate a distant third.

Officially there is no reason to doubt Mexico's resolve in continuing the battle against drug trafficking, and Pena Nieto made this clear in his meeting with Biden.

The summit also 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 which are Mexican-American.

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.

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.

Closer ties began with the $1.6 billion 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 institutionalized, because these challenges are not going away," a senior US defence official traveling with Panetta said.

Robert Kaplan, an influential US author who often focuses on strategic and military issues, believes that Washington has ignored Mexico for too long.

"Helping to stabilize Mexico - as limited as the United States' options may be, given the complexity and sensitivity of the relationship - is a more urgent national interest than stabilizing societies in the greater Middle East," Kaplan wrote in the electronic newsletter Stratfor Global Intelligence.

"If Mexico ever does reach coherent First World status, then it will become less of a threat, and the healthy melding of the two societies will quicken to the benefit of both," Kaplan wrote.

- AFP

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