Drug war may dominate US-Canada-Mexico summit

President Obama arrives in Guadalajara for two days of meetings with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
The Cabanas Cultural Institute, where the North American Leaders Summit will take place, is seen in Guadalajara, Mexico, Saturday.
Eliana Aponte/Reuters
Mexican soldiers patrol the street near the Cabanas Cultural Institute in Guadalajara, Mexico, Saturday.

When the heads of state of the United States, Mexico, and Canada meet Sunday for the summit of North American leaders in Guadalajara, clean energy, economic woes, and swine flu will be key talking points, but Mexico's drug-related violence is expected to overshadow all other issues.

And while the language of "co-responsibility" has defined the US attitude toward Mexico's struggle against its drug cartels, the summit comes as increasing doubts loom over the strategy on both sides of the border.

Some US members of congress are requesting that money from an aid package called the Merida Initiative be withheld over human rights abuse allegations against the Mexican military, which is leading the fight against organized crime.

And while Mexican President Felipe Calderón is often exalted by US officials for his hard line against drug traffickers, he is beginning to face a backlash at home as record violence stains his military effort.

"At the summit Calderón will want [President] Obama to commit to a more energetic effort to get Merida rolling," says Federico Estevez, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. But he faces hurdles north of the border and at home. "Calderón's broad strategy against organized crime in Mexico was rejected by the electorate in the midterm elections. He doesn't have more than tacit support for what he is doing."

The meeting between President Calderón, President Obama, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will touch on the recession that all three nations face. The leaders will also discuss cooperation on greenhouse-gas emissions and preparations for swine flu as autumn approaches. "The bottom line is that what affects our bordering neighbors has the potential to affect us all, so we want to be certain that we have the tightest and best possible cooperation," National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones said at a White House briefing in Washington ahead of the summit.

But security in Mexico will likely be the protagonist of the two-day meeting.

Human rights concerns

Supporters of the Merida Initiative were pushing for the release of a favorable report on Mexico's human rights record ahead of the weekend. But US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said last week that Mexico's failure to enforce human rights requirements should delay Merida funding, 15 percent of which is conditional on such improvements.

Mexico defended its human right record, as 45,000 troops have fanned across the country since Calderón took office in 2006 to take on cartels. "The Mexican Army has acted correctly ... and has undertaken a series of actions to strengthen the training of its members [to ensure human rights]," said Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa last week.

Growing frustration

Yet as it vies for the full $1.4 billion funding that comprises the Merida package, the Calderón administration is also contending with growing frustration at home. Not all are convinced that the military strategy is effective.

"The Army is getting overextended, and is also unprepared and untrained," says Dan Lund, an analyst and president of The MUND Group in Mexico City. "They are being asked to do a series of things in a strategy that might be an incorrect strategy."

At the two-day summit, however, Obama and Mr. Harper are expected to stand behind Calderón's effort. Although his National Action Party (PAN) lost recent mid-term elections, in part due to voter unhappiness over the deteriorating security situation, Calderón has showed only resolve to move forward – a stance that Washington has continuously supported.

"I think there is a sense of urgency [in Washington] ... to take advantage of this moment with Calderón in office," says Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, particularly if frustration mounts in Mexico during Calderón's final three years and the historic mistrust over sovereignty reemerges after he leaves office. "I think that is why we haven't seen any real critique ... on [issues like] human rights."

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