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Mexico's drug war looms large in Harper, Calderon and Obama meeting

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama make their way to a joint news conference at the conclusion of the North American Leaders Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Aug. 10, 2009.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It's being billed as a chance for North American leaders to discuss jobs, security and disaster assistance, but the elephant in the Rose Garden Monday just might be drug policy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will spend three hours with U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House for the sixth gathering of what was once called the Three Amigos summit.

There's been rather less brotherly love of late and the three leaders haven't met en masse since August 2009, while bilateral U.S.-Canada and Mexico-U.S. issues have taken precedence.

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A trilateral meeting on the sidelines of an APEC summit last November in Honolulu was cancelled when Mr. Calderon scrubbed his attendance due to the death of a cabinet minister in a helicopter crash.

Which brings us to Monday's meeting in Washington – just two weeks before another summit where the three amigos might have piggy-backed this chat.

The Summit of the Americas, which takes place in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15, merited only a passing mention in a release from the Prime Minister's Office.

"Canada remains committed to working with our North American partners to address security challenges and to deepening our co-operation in support of neighbours in Central America," Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said in a release.

Left unsaid was that those security challenges relate largely to a violent and escalating drug war, and that some leaders in Central America are now openly questioning three decades of public policy.

"A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking," Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, told The Observer in Britain last year. "If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it."

Otto Perez Molina, Guatemala's president and a hard-line former general, hosted a regional security meeting just over a week ago that discussed decriminalizing the transport and consumption of drugs.

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"It was as successful as we were hoping, successful in that we got rid of these taboos and myths that before kept the leaders of the region from talking or debating ideas, ideas that for a long time could not be talked about openly," Mr. Perez Molina said after the meeting, which did not come to an agreement.

For the governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico – which just last week agreed to greater military co-operation in pursuit of the war on drugs – such talk will have to be addressed in Cartagena.

The Harper government is proudly prohibitionist when it comes to drugs, and Mr. Obama hasn't shown much public sympathy for the decriminalization arguments.

"We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," Mr. Obama said Mar. 3 during a previous visit by the Mexican president to the White House. "We have to take responsibility just as he's taken responsibility."

Close to 50,000 Mexican lives have been lost since December 2006, when Mr. Calderon sent in the military against the drug cartels. Former president Ernesto Zedillo flatly asserted in 2009 that "the war on drugs has failed."

"The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics," Mr. Zedillo wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

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What could make Monday's closed-door discussion at the White House interesting is Calderon's own enigmatic statements hinting at drug decriminalization. His six-year presidency ends later this year and he can't seek re-election – and retired politicians are among the most vocal advocates of a change in drug policy.

Last September in a speech in New York, Mr. Calderon said "we must do everything to reduce demand for drugs."

"But if the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions – including market alternatives – in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations."

You can bet "market alternatives" for recreational drugs was not what Mr. Harper's PMO had in mind when it spoke of "sustainable economic growth and job creation" in advance of Monday's trilateral meeting.

"Work on North American competitiveness is focused on co-operative approaches to managing our borders, streamlining regulations, securing global supply chains and advancing the transition to a clean energy economy," said the PMO release.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the party of Ernesto Zedillo. This version has been corrected.

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