President Barack Obama meets this weekend with leaders of Mexico and Canada at a time when drug-related violence, swine flu and the economic crisis are slipping across North America's borders like never before.
Obama, along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are expected to work on trade and immigration, drug trafficking and security, and clean energy during their first summit Sunday and Monday in the western colonial city of Guadalajara.
"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," said National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones during a White House briefing with the news media.
For Mexico, the North American Leaders Summit comes at a crucial time: Washington is debating whether to withhold money to help fight Mexico's powerful drug cartels due to allegations of human rights abuses by the Mexican military.
International human rights groups, including the World Organization Against Torture, want Mexico to try soldiers in civil courts, something Calderon so far has appeared reluctant to do.
Mexican military under scrutiny
Complaints against the army have increased dramatically since 2006 when Calderon launched his anti-drug campaign, sending more than 45,000 soldiers to drug hotspots. This week, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, delayed the release of $100 million of the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a three-year package.
Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said her government is confident Mexico will still receive the full funding, saying officials have sent the State Department information about steps taken to ensure the protection of human rights while fighting organized crime.
"The Mexican army has acted correctly ... and has undertaken a series of actions to strengthen the training of its members in this matter," Espinosa told reporters this week.
Calderon will surely emphasize that point in his meetings with Obama, as well as drive home how important such funding is to keep up the drug war's momentum.
Mexican communities are living under siege with dozens of cartel-related killings each month. U.S. Justice Department officials say as many as 230 U.S. cities have been infiltrated by Mexican cartels and are hoping to prevent similar violence.
Drug dealing is also soaring in Canada. While the country's gang problems pale in comparison to Mexico's, the city of Vancouver — once known as the world's safest — has seen dozens of drug gang-related killings in the past two years.
Topics go beyond drug war
The leaders also are expected to take up the swine flu pandemic. Since spring, the Pan American Health Organization has reported more than 43,500 cases and 300 deaths in the U.S., 10,150 cases and 50 deaths in Canada, and 15,727 cases with 141 deaths in Mexico.
Leaders also will discuss the U.S. economic crisis that has sent devastating waves to its neighbors. Both Mexico and Canada send 80 percent of their exports to the U.S., which has severely reduced its buying power. As a result, this year Mexico will see its economy contract between 6.5 and 7.5 percent, while Canada's economy is expected to shrink 2.3 percent.
Other key issues are likely to include the Honduran coup, which began in late June when Honduran soldiers exiled President Manuel Zelaya. Obama and other international leaders say the coup was illegal and have called for Zelaya's return.
The summit — a part of the three nations' Security and Prosperity Partnership — was established five years ago by leaders who are no longer in office, said Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy in the region.
The agenda is largely set by business interests currently, but Obama, Calderon and Harper may want to bring more citizen and legislative voices into the process, she said.
Obama has made Mexican and Canadian relations a priority, meeting three times already with Calderon, sending high-level cabinet members to Mexico, and acknowledging that the U.S. is partly responsible for the cartel violence south of the border.
"Mexico kind of fell off the agenda for President (George W.) Bush for a long time," Meyer said. "There really hasn't been this level of engagement with Mexico for years."