The relationship between the US and Mexico is one of the most complex in the world between two highly populated, large economies, sharing a 2,000-mile border but, at the same time, separated by enormous cultural and wealth differences. Mexico has always punched below its weight. Despite the shared challenges and the fact that Mexico is now the US’ main trading partner, it has never managing to position itself among the US’ top foreign policy priorities. Suffice it to say that Mexico only deserved a total of three mentions between both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s memoirs.
The already complex US-Mexico relationship became even more cumbersome with the arrival of two presidents -Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)- who share a lot of traits in common, including being isolationists and lacking any interest in foreign policy. It is clear that Trump always saw Mexico as nothing more than a wall and a garbage dump. Trump thought of Mexico as a buffer to contain what he considered the “undesirable” Central American migration and a waste-yard where to send those immigrants he did not want to have in the US. Nothing else and nothing more than that.
AMLO’s strategy to deal with Trump can be summarized in one phrase from the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do not harm” (primum non nocere). He avoided any confrontation with the US President and did not respond to his insults and threats. Looking back, AMLO was right even when he could have scored some political points domestically if he had confronted Trump as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign. AMLO took the risk of visiting Trump in the middle of the US presidential campaign and on the way he insulted Democratic leaders by not even attempting to meet with them during what has been his only trip abroad. Also, AMLO has yet to congratulate Joe Biden as US President-Elect. Now we understand the reasons why. If AMLO had congratulated Biden, he could have hindered the negotiation with the Trump administration to drop drug-trafficking charges against Mexico’s former Defense Minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who the had been arrested by US law enforcement in mid-October, and was recently released.
How will AMLO’s closeness to Trump affect his relationship with Biden? What will the US-Mexico relationship look like in a complex post-pandemic world, at a time when the new USMCA trade deal is just kicking off? It is hard to know. It would be important to understand why General Cienfuegos was released, and here we can only speculate. Previously, I have argued that the presumption of innocence principle should be maintained both in the Cienfuegos case and in the case involving Mexico’s former Public Security Minister, Genaro García Luna, whom the US also arrested on drug trafficking charges in 2019. During their time in government, both Cienfuegos and García Luna had broad and unrestricted access to copious government funds and were fully aware of how touching drug money would permanently impair their close relationship with US security agencies. But, beyond that, it would be important to know the evidence that led the US District Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York to criminally indict the General. It would be highly unlikely that it were based solely on the protected witnesses testimony, as other columnists say. At the end of the day, probably General Cienfuegos will be the biggest loser of not having been able to contest the case of the prosecution in a court of law, since public opinion is likely to convict him.
The negotiation to seek that the US government dismissed the charges against Cienfuegos may have probably involved Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The US arrest of Cienfuegos’s put the Mexican administration at a crossroads given the enormous role that the armed forces have gained under AMLO. The million-dollar question is what exactly did president Trump get in exchange for freeing Cienfuegos. It is hard for me to think that Trump agreed to it just to thank AMLO’s loyalty, without obtaining something that could benefit him personally, not the US.
However, it is very possible that the decision by the US government to send Cienfuegos back to Mexico could prove an ephemeral success for AMLO. It could actually drive his government further away from the new Biden administration. President-elect Biden is a veteran politician who understands well that AMLO was between a rock and a hard place. But let’s not get confused. The release of Cienfuegos has nothing to do with the US trusting the Mexican judiciary. There is full awareness in the US that his prosecution in Mexico is highly unlikely. Mexico will corroborate the impunity it is criticized for. The fact that the US government did not previously share the existence of an indictment against Cienfuegos since 2019 proves that it does not trust the AMLO administration. Today, there is less cooperation than ever between the US and Mexico on security issues, precisely at a time when drug cartel interference in Mexican politics reaches levels never seen before. Many candidates winning in next year’s mid-term election will be their allies. Today, General Cienfuegos is no longer on trial but Mexico’s own rule of law is. No friend will bail us out from that one.
* Jorge Suárez-Vélez is an economic and political analyst He is the author of The Coming Downturn of the World Economy (Random House 2011). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @jorgesuarezv