President Obama, flanked by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left,… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — President Obama hosted the leaders of Mexico and Canada on Monday in a White House summit aimed at boosting the region's growing economic ties, but the scourge of drug violence in Mexico muddled the message and highlighted friction between the neighbors.
Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the three announced an initiative to cut regulations that constrict trade across the northern and southern borders. But Mexico's drug war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, dominated a Rose Garden news conference.
Calderon urged Obama to toughen U.S. gun laws, a politically touchy issue for the administration. The Mexican president blamed U.S. gun sales for fueling the violence in his country, and he emphasized that drug cartels are not "strictly Mexican in nature."
"They don't have a nationality, and they don't operate in just one country," Calderon said.
Obama acknowledged that the United States is the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs. Billions of dollars from towns throughout the U.S. wind up in the pockets of cartel kingpins each year.
"When you have innocent families and women and children being gunned down in the streets, that should be everybody's problem, not just [Mexico's] problem," Obama said.
It was Calderon's final scheduled visit to the White House before his six-year term ends in November. Officials in Washington and Mexico City are eager to show that relations are on firm ground as Mexico faces a political transition.
Still, the Mexican president was willing to challenge his U.S. counterpart. He said the deadly increase in violence in Mexico coincided "almost exactly" with the expiration of a U.S. ban on the production of assault weapons in 2004.
In the last four years, more than 140,000 weapons have been seized in Mexico, he said. Most were sold in the U.S. and most were assault weapons, he added.
"I know that if we don't stop the traffic of weapons into Mexico, if we don't have mechanisms to forbid the sale of weapons such as we had in the '90s … then we are never going to be able to stop the violence in Mexico or stop a future turning of those guns upon the U.S.," Calderon said, speaking through an interpreter.
Obama has not prioritized efforts to tighten gun laws, in keeping with his party's calculation that the issue alienates rural and Western voters. The president did not respond directly to Calderon's comments, but he promised to "keep on partnering" with Mexico on security issues.
Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion to buy equipment for the Mexican military and to train Mexican law enforcement and prosecutors to go after the cartels, among other programs that are part of a security cooperation deal known as the Merida Initiative.
U.S. Treasury officials also have increased cooperation with financial investigators in Mexico in an effort to blacklist Mexican individuals and companies that help the cartels launder money.
"We recognize that we have a responsibility to reduce demand for drugs, that we have a responsibility to make sure that not only guns, but also bulk cash, isn't flowing into Mexico," Obama said.
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Mexico will curtail cooperation in the war on drugs after Calderon leaves office.
In recent months, U.S. officials have reached out to opposition political figures to stress that it is important for the two governments to work together.