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Julie Pace the Associated Press
Published: 03 March 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon are meeting amid heightened tensions over violence at their shared border, though no major breakthroughs are expected on what's quickly becoming a defining issue in the relationship between the North American allies.

Their meeting Thursday morning at the White House 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.

"We have to make sure that those kinds of incidents are not repeated and to the extent that that involves the potential arming of them, that's something I think we have to consider," Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional panel this week.

Administration officials said the White House has been working closely with Calderon's government on how to protect U.S. personnel working in Mexico, but they wouldn't say whether Obama would press the Mexican leader to allow U.S. agents to be armed.

U.S. and Mexican officials have emphasized that Calderon's visit was planned before Zapata's killing. The leaders are expected discuss a wide range of topics, including economic cooperation and immigration, during a private meeting before taking questions from reporters.

The contentious debate over immigration dominated Calderon's visit to the White House in May, shortly after Arizona passed a law that makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and requires police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're illegal. Mexico's government strongly opposes the law, and the Mexican Senate this week urged Calderon to again vehemently make their opposition known to Obama.

Obama also opposes the Arizona law; the White House said that comprehensive immigration reform remains high on Obama's agenda and that the president would update Calderon on the state of the immigration debate in the U.S.

Obama and Calderon were also expected to discuss U.S. aid to help 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to preview the announcement.

The announcement comes as the State Department issued a report praising Mexico's government for increased drug seizures and better efforts to combat narcotics trafficking and money laundering. But it said Mexican production of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines was rapidly rising, and that cartels were becoming even more dangerous through use of sniper rifles, grenades and increasingly military tactics.

Also on the agenda for Thursday's meetings: ongoing negotiations over opening U.S. highways to Mexican trucks, as was agreed to in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. truck drivers oppose allowing Mexican motor carriers access to the U.S., saying the Mexicans have an economic advantage because they don't have to meet as stringent safety and environmental standards.

Mexico has placed higher tariffs on dozens of U.S. products in response to the unresolved dispute.


Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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