WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon Thursday vowed to step up the fight against Mexico’s violent drug cartels, and resolved a decades-old trucking dispute.
It was the fifth meeting in two years between the two men, and Obama stressed the “strong bonds” between the neighbors and renewed his commitment to helping crack down on the trafficking of drugs and weapons across their joint border.
“President Calderon and the Mexican people have shown extraordinary courage in the fight for their country,” Obama told a joint press conference after White House talks, referring to the four-year offensive against Mexico’s drug cartels.
“Tens of thousands of Mexicans, innocent citizens and dedicated security forces, have lost their lives. I have reaffirmed to President Calderon that in this cause, Mexico has a full partner with the United States.”
More than 34,600 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006, when Calderon’s government deployed soldiers and federal police to take on the powerful crime gangs.
Obama also announced the two leaders had reached an agreement on a longstanding cross-border trucking dispute.
“After nearly 20 years, we finally have found a clear path to resolving the dispute over trucking between our two countries,” Obama said.
As part of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the US vowed to let Mexican haulers deliver goods across the border.
But the issue has been the subject of fierce political wrangling, with US truckers arguing it would cost jobs in southwestern states and amid fears over border security.
Importers, meanwhile, have argued the deal would throw open opportunities for new cross-border business.
The free-trade partners share a 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border and have strong economic and demographic ties, with Mexico being the largest source of immigrants to the United States.
The truckers’ deal, which triggered swift anger from truckers who argue it will profoundly impact small businesses, must now be sent to Congress.
Eyeing a potential political fight, Obama stressed the importance of the trade relationship between the two countries and said business with Mexico supported one million American jobs.
“Our exports to Mexico are growing faster than they are with the rest of the world,” he said.
Calderon thanked the Obama administration for the efforts in the war on the drug cartels, saying that more weapons traffickers and drug runners had been caught than ever before in the past.
“One of the things that I suggested during our conversation and I think we still have to look at this very carefully is if you can find a means of sealing ports of entry along the border,” he said.
“I believe it’s possible, although it will require huge technological and financial resources to achieve it, but I think it’s a way of ensuring security.”
Security was one of the main issues broached at the White House summit after a US agent was killed in Mexico last month.
The roadside shooting death of customs agent Jaime Zapata on February 15, the first killing of a US federal agent on Mexican soil in 26 years, has raised the stakes for the US government in Mexico’s increasingly violent drug war.
A report released by the State Department Thursday said “Mexico continues to aggressively pursue policies to combat drug trafficking” including arresting a record number of drug kingpins and seizing weapons, drugs and cash.
About 95 percent of the estimated cocaine flow towards the United States transits through Mexico, the report said, adding Mexico was also a major supplier of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines to the US.
The report added the Mexican government “has an enormous challenge ahead to control drug trafficking, roll back pervasive violence, and build the institutional capacity necessary for the rule of law to flourish.”
The two countries launched a joint probe into the killing of Zapata, 32, and wounding of Victor Avila, a second immigration and customs agent, in the attack in the state of San Luis Potosi.
And both sides have since acted against Mexico’s vicious drug gangs.
Mexico’s military on Sunday arrested an alleged boss of the Zetas drug gang who was reported to have directed the deadly attack.
US authorities meanwhile said they had arrested close to 700 people in an ongoing US-led international crackdown on Mexican drug cartels.
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