WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Border security, the drug war and arms smuggling will join trade and the recession on the agenda of President Barack Obama’s first “three amigos” summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada this weekend in Mexico.
With Mexican gangs dominating the drug trade over the U.S. border and up into Canada, and violence -- often with U.S.-made weapons -- spreading north, security is in the news in all three countries, as much, if not more, than trade, economic recession and climate change.
“What affects our bordering neighbors has the potential to affect us all, so we want to be certain that we have the tightest, best possible, cooperation,” Obama’s national security adviser, Jim Jones, told reporters before the meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday and Monday.
Obama has made relations with his neighbors a priority during his first months in office. Since becoming president in January, he has met both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon several times.
Mexican drug gangs are killing rivals in record numbers, despite Calderon’s three-year army assault on the cartels. The death rate this year is about a third higher than in 2008, and police in the United States and as far north as Vancouver have blamed violence on the Mexican traffickers.
“Violence, particularly in Mexico, has increased exponentially. There are some signs that it is heading north of the border not just in the United States but also in Canada,” said Shannon O‘Neil, a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Obama promised full support to Calderon during a visit in April, but Mexico complains that anti-drug equipment and training are taking too long to arrive and hopes the summit will move things ahead.
Border security is a concern for all three leaders, with illegal immigration a volatile political issue in the United States, home to millions of undocumented Mexicans.
Calderon and Harper may also address a simmering dispute over Canada’s decision last month to require that Mexican visitors obtain visas.
Canada is the United States’ largest trading partner and Mexico its third largest, and both countries have expressed concerns about what they see as a tilt toward protectionism as Washington seeks to overcome the recession.
U.S. business groups have been pressing the White House to resolve a cross-border trucking dispute with Mexico they say threatens to eliminate thousands of U.S. jobs. Mexico imposed retaliatory tariffs of $2.4 billion in U.S. goods in March after Obama signed a bill canceling a program allowing Mexican trucks to operate beyond the U.S. border zone.
“We would like to see a final closure and a final solution to the issue of trucking,” a Mexican government official said, adding his government would like a deal by year’s end.
Canada, which sends 75 percent of its exports to the United States, has decried provisions in the U.S. stimulus package requiring, for example, that steel used in public works projects under the plan be made in the United States.
“Expect some general words publicly from the leaders on these issues, about the continued need for open borders and a robust trading relationship within North America,” said Eric Farnsworth, a vice president at the Council of the Americas.
“Expect some tougher words behind closed doors, because both Canada and Mexico need a strong, open U.S. for their own recovery and they will surely impress this idea on President Obama,” he said.
The leaders also promise a statement on the H1N1 swine flu and will jointly address climate change as they prepare for major international talks in Copenhagen in December.
“It will be interesting to see what kinds of announcements are made, what kind of statements are made on the issues of alternative energy and climate change,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It’s an area where there’s a lot of possibility for future work among the three countries,” he said.
All three countries have touted their cooperation during this year’s H1N1 flu outbreak as a sign of how well they can work together. “We saw unprecedented cooperation and openness with the three countries working together,” O‘Neil said.
Regional issues such as June’s ouster of leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, are expected to be discussed, but not be a focus. Obama, Calderon and Harper have all expressed support for efforts to restore democracy in Honduras.
“They continue to hope the international mediation effort will work, as a solution,” Farnsworth said. “Certainly, this is not the issue the president or secretary of state wants to deal with, with everything else going on.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Alan Dowd in Vancouver and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney