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Obama, Calderon pledge cooperation on drug wars
WASHINGTON -- Seeking to repair damaged relations, President Barack 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, Obama praised Calderon for his "extraordinary courage" in fighting the violent drug cartels that have been responsible for deaths on both sides of the border. Obama pledged to speed up U.S. aid to train and equip Mexican forces to help in those efforts, but he also acknowledged that the U.S. must stem the flow of cash and guns to Mexico that have aided the cartels.
"We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," Obama said. "We have to take responsibility just as he's taken responsibility."
Calderon's visit comes three weeks after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was shot to death in northern Mexico with a gun smuggled in from the U.S. The incident raised questions in the U.S. 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.
Mexican law bans foreign law enforcement agents working in the country from bearing arms, and Calderon vehemently expressed his opposition to making an exception for U.S. personnel. But he said Zapata's death showed a need to consider alternative methods for protecting agents.
"His death must urge us to work together to ensure a prosperous and peaceful future for our region," Calderon said.
Obama said the U.S. is seeking extradition of several suspects arrested in Mexico in connection with Zapata's death.
Tensions between the North American allies were already heightened ahead of Zapata's death. Secret State Department cables released last year revealed a grim assessment by U.S. officials of Mexico's ability to fight drug cartels, saying the country has limited intelligence-gathering capacity and quoting Calderon as saying politicians could be tempted to return to a tacit policy of tolerating the gangs.
In a show of confidence in Calderon's efforts, the Obama administration said it would continue to send aid to support Mexico in the drug war. A senior administration official said the U.S. 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, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was not authorized to speak publicly about the agreement.
Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that given the breadth of the U.S-Mexico relationship, it was critical that Obama and Calderon meet before tensions escalated further.
"There are junctures like this where leaders have to get together and work through any misunderstanding that there might be, and then agree ways on ways to move forward," Johnson said.
Eager to show signs of a productive partnership, Obama and Calderon 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 U.S. has refused to allow Mexican trucks access amid concerns over their ability to meet stringent U.S. safety and environmental standards. more