New York Times
By Azam Ahmed, Gardiner Harris and Ron Nixon
February 23, 2017
MEXICO CITY — In the White House, President Trump was telling American chief executives on Thursday that the days of being treated unfairly by Mexico — on trade, on immigration, on crime — were over.
“You see what’s happening at the border: All of a sudden, for the first time, we’re getting gang members out,” Mr. Trump said, referring to his instructions to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants. “And it’s a military operation.”
But in Mexico, his homeland security secretary, John F. Kelly, was saying the opposite, trying to tamp down fears of a military operation and to assure the public that American soldiers would not be used to police the border.
“I repeat: There will be no use of military in this,” Mr. Kelly said at a news conference on Thursday, appearing with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. “At least half of you try to get that right, because it continues to come up in your reporting.”
Mr. Trump has a penchant for dropping unwelcome surprises during visits between the United States and Mexico. Last month, on the first day of a trip to Washington by Mexico’s foreign minister, Mr. Trump signed an executive order to build a wall between the two countries.
Then, this week, just before Mr. Kelly and Mr. Tillerson touched down in Mexico, his administration released policies that vastly expanded the potential for deportation of undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Trump is certainly not the only American president to clamp down on illegal immigration. His predecessor, Barack Obama, deported record numbers of immigrants, including gang members. But Mr. Trump’s actions and disparaging remarks about Mexico have helped push relations between the two countries to their lowest point in decades.
His steady stream of provocative policies and statements has enraged the Mexican public and left their leaders to consider their own leverage in the event of a meltdown in ties between the two countries, whether on trade, migration or security.
On Thursday, the contradictions between the president and his top staff raised a pressing question: Which version of Washington will come to bear on Mexico in the coming months? Will it be the aggressive approach of the president or the more reassuring stance of Mr. Kelly, who will be assigned to oversee some of the proposals likely to antagonize Mexico the most?
“Let me be very, very clear,” Mr. Kelly said, assuring Mexicans that the rules for deporting people from the United States had not fundamentally changed — another possible contradiction of his boss. “There will be no, repeat no, mass deportations.”
The statements during the visit offered a startling departure from past trips to Mexico by American diplomats. Four officials — two from Mexico and two from the United States — walked into a large ballroom with grim faces and made carefully worded comments without taking any questions.
It was the kind of cautious staging normally seen after tough negotiations between adversaries, not talks between friendly neighbors. No one suggested that a breakthrough had been made.
“Two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences,” Mr. Tillerson said.
Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray of Mexico called it a “complex moment in the relationship.”
In the last month, Mexican officials have shown cautious restraint, and even silence, in response to Mr. Trump’s threats, often to the frustration of the Mexican people.
Their logic, officials say, is cleareyed: To descend into a fight with the United States would serve no one, least of all the Mexican people who are spoiling for a harder line against Mr. Trump.
But that is not to say the Mexicans are without recourse. While they are hoping to avoid a confrontation, the whispers of discontent have started to spread.
The minister of economy has said there will be no trade talks without similar talks on security and migration, twin areas of vulnerability for the United States.
And Mr. Videgaray, responding to a directive from Mr. Trump broadening the scope of deportations in America, has vowed to bring to the United Nations any actions by the United States to send non-Mexicans to Mexico.
Mexico is keenly aware of its leverage in the bilateral relationship: billions of dollars in agricultural purchases by Mexico, a decade of security cooperation to dismantle cartels and intercept drugs destined for the United States, and the detention of hundreds of thousands of migrants passing through Mexico on their way to America’s southern border.
On trade, putting aside the supply chains of vehicles and electronics engineered by the North American Free Trade Agreement, agriculture is a major vulnerability for the United States. Mexico is an immense purchaser of American farm goods.
The nation is the No. 1 purchaser of American corn, dairy, pork and rice. Mexico purchased nearly $2 billion of corn in 2016 and also bought large amounts of soybeans, wheat, cotton and beef.
A Mexican lawmaker recently proposed a bill to redirect purchases of corn away from the United States, a tactic that could devastate American corn farmers in the heartland of Mr. Trump’s base. Both Brazil and Argentina offer alternatives to the American Corn Belt, experts and officials say.
“There are a lot of jobs in agriculture that are dependent on Nafta in America,” said Gregorio Schneider, the founder of TC Latin America Partners, a New York-based private equity firm that invests in Mexico. “You are talking about the center of the United States.”
On national security, Mexico also plays a large role. The government could slow down extraditions to the United States, keeping sought-after drug lords like Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, instead of sending them north. It could also stop deporting American fugitives who have fled to Mexico.
Perhaps more threatening to the United States would be a reconsideration of Mexico’s participation in the drug war. For more than a decade, the Mexican authorities have cooperated in arresting top cartel leaders and intercepting drug shipments destined for the United States.
Mexico could also leverage its participation in the sharing of intelligence. The vast majority of drugs funneled — and tunneled — through Mexico are not for domestic consumption.
“We receive information from Mexican authorities on a daily basis that helps us better target drugs smugglers at the border,” said Gil Kerlikowske, who was the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration. “These are ties we want to strengthen, not weaken.”
Mr. Kerlikowske said Mexican federal police officers were stationed in Tucson and in Laredo, Tex., where they assist American law enforcement in identifying drug cartels and human smugglers by sharing information in Mexican criminal history databases.
Likewise, American Customs and Border Protection officers are assigned to a joint program in Mexico City, where they share information on possible drug traffickers through the use of American law enforcement databases.
In 2015, joint operations between the Border Patrol and Mexican law enforcement led to the discovery of 30 drug tunnels and about 80,000 pounds of drugs.
Whether policing the southern American border to prevent unwanted migrants from entering the United States or examining passenger manifests to ensure terror-related suspects cannot enter through Mexico, the authorities here have been a critical component of America’s national security strategy.
In 2014, Mexico launched Plan Frontera Sur to safeguard its southern border from migrants trying to enter from Central America. The plan has essentially served as a dragnet 1,000 miles south of the Texas border, catching hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans en route to the United States.
Some experts and officials have suggested that Mexico could simply ease up on its border patrols, granting passage to large numbers of Central Americans. That would not only swamp the American authorities, but might enable potentially dangerous migrants to slip into the country.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, tried later in the day to clarify the contradiction between Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Kelly’s remarks. He said that Mr. Trump had not meant to characterize the deportation efforts as a military operation, arguing that the president had been using the word “military” as an adjective.
“It’s being done with precision,” Mr. Spicer said.
The meetings here on Thursday produced a modicum of agreement between the United States and Mexico. Both Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Kelly acknowledged the significance of border cooperation to address the flow of migration from Central America to the United States.
It is a topic that Mr. Kelly, who led more than 1,000 military personnel of the United States Southern Command, knows something about. He has in the past outlined a more balanced approach to protecting the borders, saying security cannot “be attempted as an endless series of ‘goal-line stands’ on the one-foot line at the official ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico.”
This could place him once more at odds with the mandates of his boss, Mr. Trump, whose executive order to build a wall will fall directly among Mr. Kelly’s responsibilities.
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