Clinton Broaching Border Trucking, Drug Violence on Mexico Trip

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Guanajuato, Mexico, today to discuss security on the U.S.-Mexico border, instability in Haiti and Mexican truckers’ access to the U.S. market.

Clinton and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa will also discuss climate change, trade, immigration, drug and human trafficking and broader Latin American issues, according to the State Department.

Espinosa invited Clinton to review all the issues in the bilateral relationship, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan said in an interview. With both U.S. and Mexican presidential elections slated for 2012, policymakers want to ensure progress they have made isn’t lost, he said.

It’s a priority to “make sure, as we near the end of President Calderon’s administration, that we have a clear roadmap so that we can lock in, advance, or finalize, as much as we can, the achievements we’ve made on a number of issues before the Mexican government finishes its tenure,” Sarukhan said.

Clinton and Espinosa will review the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.6 billion U.S. program to combat drug trafficking in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The program began under President George W. Bush and the Obama administration has expanded it to emphasize strengthening police and judicial agencies, according to a State Department official not authorized to speak on the record.

Drug Violence

“The biggest issue is the violence connected with the drug trade and the operations of the drug cartels, some of which spills over to the United States,” said Sidney Weintraub, a former foreign service officer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.

Violence in Mexico has increased since President Felipe Calderon started sending military troops to fight drug gangs in mostly northern states after taking office in December 2006. Drug-related deaths increased almost 60 percent in 2010 to 15,273 from 9,612 in 2009, according to government figures. A total of 34,612 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico under Calderon.

Under the Bush administration, the 1,951-mile border was mostly seen as a domestic policy issue, said Shannon O’Neil, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The current administration has also made it a foreign policy issue, consulting and cooperating more with Mexico in the effort to secure the border, she said.

Sarukhan said that his country and the U.S. now address the multiple issues involving the 1,951-mile border -- trade, climate change, trafficking of drugs and humans, security -- as interlocking parts of a whole.

‘Holistic Vision’

“This holistic vision is one of the most important issues they will work on,” he said of the two leaders. “For the first time, U.S.-Mexico has devised an umbrella vision for how we manage the border,” he said in an interview.

Clinton will also hold talks on rules for Mexican truckers who drive goods produced in Mexico to their destinations in the U.S., according to a State Department official not authorized to speak on the record.

Mexican truckers are granted that permission under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. hasn’t implemented that aspect of the treaty, in part because of objections from Congress that the Mexican trucks are unsafe.

Mexico responded with its own trade sanctions. Humberto Trevino, Mexico’s transportation minister, said Jan. 6 that an agreement is within reach.

Prosperity and Security

“One of the challenges we face again is how do we make sure common prosperity is in sync with common security,” Sarukhan said. With 75,000 trucks crossing the border in both directions every day, “we need to make sure $1 billion in trade that goes across our border every day” is unimpeded, Sarukhan said.

Mexico’s $875 billion economy, the second-largest in Latin America, is projected to grow about 4 percent this year after expanding more than 5 percent last year, according to the government. The economy shrank 6.1 percent in 2009.

Mexico is the U.S.’s third largest trade partner after Canada and China, totaling $324 billion for the first nine months of 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. Mexico is also the second largest market for U.S. exports, making it crucial to President Barack Obama’s goal of doubling exports in five years.

An agreement on the trucking dispute would be “very important” to that goal, said O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Trucking delays at the border make it “hard for just-in-time delivery that makes companies more productive,” O’Neil said. “A lot of products are competitive globally because they do some of the production in Mexico and the rest here in the U.S.,” O’Neil said. “The trucking issue raises costs further.”

Clinton and Espinosa will meet in the colonial city of Guanajuato, the birthplace of Mexico’s independence movement. It is northwest of Mexico City.

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