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August 11, 2009

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North American leaders meet to discuss swine flu and trade

UNITED States President Barack Obama huddled yesterday with the leaders of Mexico and Canada for a swift North American summit, where the swine flu epidemic and knotty disputes over cross-border trade dominated a lengthy agenda.

The three men met in the huge, domed room of a storied cultural institute in Guadalajara, Mexico, before starting two hours of closed talks. They gazed up at the murals on the arched ceilings and chatted while photographers snapped pictures before the news media were ushered out of the room.

Obama flew into Mexico's second-largest city late on Sunday for the two-day speed summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper - a meeting whose main accomplishment will likely be a joint plan of attack for swine flu.

But there was little chance of any breakthrough in long-running squabbles over Mexican trucks, or US "Buy American" rules or how best to curb the deadly flow of drugs across the frontier.

The so-called "Three Amigos" summit began over dinner at the ornate cultural center and was to conclude a mere 17 hours later at a joint news conference.

In April, when Obama visited Mexico City, the first swine flu cases were just surfacing. Now, it's a global epidemic that's sickened more than 43,000 people in the US and is blamed for 300 deaths.

The toll in Mexico is at least 15,000 cases and 141 deaths; in Canada it's 10,000 cases and 50 deaths.

While the H1N1 virus is in a summer lull in the Northern Hemisphere, it's expected to roar back in the fall. Public health officials are readying medicines and education campaigns, hoping to curb the flu without disrupting cross-border trade and tourism.

"We're going to do everything possible to minimize the impact," said John Brennan, Obama's top White House adviser on homeland security. "There is going to be a joint statement on how the three countries ... tackle the H1N1 challenge."

On other subjects, the summit was more a chance to catch up.

Started by former US President George W. Bush in 2005, the North American Leaders Summit has become an annual showcase on trade. Canada is the top US trading partner, while Mexico is number three.

This year, as the US economy struggles out of a crippling recession, the leaders met at the Institutos Cabanas, a 19th-century home for poor children that's now a sprawling art museum with 23 arched courtyards filled with grapefruit and mango trees.

Streets around the complex were sealed off by heavily armed federal agents and police in riot gear.

The security stemmed in part from the drug wars that have raged in Mexico since Calderon deployed the army to crush the cartels. Eleven thousand people have perished in the conflict.

In a separate meeting with Calderon, Obama voiced strong support of the offensive, but Calderon expressed concerns about delays in the latest installment of US aid under the US$1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a US official reported. The money's been held up by allegations of human rights violations.

Calderon also pressed Obama on allowing Mexican trucks access to US highways, said the official. Mexicans are convinced the US limits are less about safety - their stated reason - than protecting American hauling companies from competition.


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