WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón on Thursday agreed tentatively to open up U.S. highways to Mexican trucks — a step that finally could put the United States in permanent compliance with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mexico proposes to cut in half its retaliatory tariffs on 99 U.S. products exported to Mexico immediately upon completion of a final proposal. Once the first Mexican trucking company is authorized to make deliveries beyond the border zone, the remaining half of the tariffs will be removed, the White House said.
In a far-ranging summit in Washington, Obama also said the U.S. is seeking the extradition of the suspect arrested in Mexico in the killing of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent last month. And because of the tension from the release of secret cables distributed by WikiLeaks, Calderón suggested he may no longer be able to work with the American ambassador in Mexico.
The U.S. has refused to allow Mexican trucks access amid concerns over their ability to meet America’s safety and environmental standards. Mexico has retaliated with tariffs.
Imposed in 2009 when Congress suddenly ended funding for a pilot project started in 2007, the tariffs are calibrated to make the U.S. products uncompetitive in Mexico’s market. They affect about $2.4 billion worth of U.S. goods going into Mexico each year.
A final draft agreement will need the approval of Congress. Mexico will retain the right to impose retaliatory tariffs if Congress does not act.
“We are pleased,” said Free Trade Alliance San Antonio President and CEO Kyle Burns. “It is unfortunate that it took billions of dollars in retaliatory tariffs to force the U.S. government into living up to its international obligations.
“We are hopeful that this latest program will lead to the successful conclusion of this issue, which should have been fully implemented in 2000,” Burns said. “Mexico is showing good faith in our efforts. It is now up to the United States to follow through on our latest commitments and stop hiding behind safety concerns that are unfounded, as the initial pilot program proved.”
Regarding the extradition request, Calderón offered condolences to the family of the slain agent, Jaime Zapata of Brownsville, and said a decision on extradition would be weighed by Mexican officials.
“There is the full political will that this individual be brought to justice with the full weight of the law, whether that be in the United States or Mexico,” Calderon said.
U.S. officials have pressed the Mexican government for better protection of agents serving as advisers in Mexico, asking that agents be allowed to carry weapons.
But Calderón said Mexican legal restrictions would prevent foreign agents from being armed in Mexico, even though it was imperative to enhance the level of protection.
Obama hinted at new security protections, such as having American agents travel with armed Mexican security forces.
Mexico extradited 94 criminals to the U.S. in 2010 under a treaty that prevents the U.S. from giving Mexican citizens the death penalty.
Calderón said the release of State Department cables criticizing Mexico’s drug fight had caused “severe damage” to its relationship with the U.S. and suggested tensions had risen so dramatically that he could no longer work with the American ambassador in his country.
His comments were the strongest to date on the secret cables revealed by WikiLeaks, which have threatened to disrupt what both sides have hailed as increasingly close cooperation against Mexico’s violent drug gangs.