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By picking fight with Mexico, Trump shocks key partner

Mexico City, Mexico | AFP |

By picking a fight with Mexico, US President Donald Trump is needling a strategic partner that could retaliate with a trade war and less cooperation on immigration and the drug war, analysts say.

The neighboring countries face the biggest diplomatic rift in decades over Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for construction of a wall along their 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.

The dispute prompted President Enrique Pena Nieto to scrap a meeting with Trump in Washington that had been scheduled for next week, while the White House raised the possibility of slapping tariffs on Mexico to fund the wall.

The two leaders sought to mend fences on Friday as they spoke on the phone for an hour, acknowledging their differences over who should pay for the wall while agreeing to seek a resolution.

The two governments issued a nearly identical statement about the conversation, except for one line that only appeared in the Mexican government’s text: “The presidents also agreed for now to no longer speak publicly about this controversial issue.”

Neither statement indicated whether the two presidents would reschedule their meeting, though they instructed their teams to continue negotiations.

For Jesus Velasco, an expert in US-Mexico relations at Tarleton State University in Texas, it is “even worse” than the last major diplomatic crisis in 1985, when a drug cartel tortured and killed a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, prompting Washington to briefly close the border.

“Trump is cornering the Pena Nieto administration so that there is no room for negotiations,” Velasco told AFP.

– Countering the ‘bully’ –

Urging Mexico to “defend itself against the bully,” former president Felipe Calderon said the government could hit back through its drug war cooperation.

The army, for example, could stop checking trucks for narcotics before they cross the border, he said.

“Decisions must be made to make them understand that Mexico’s support and collaboration (on security) do not come free,” Calderon told Radio Formula.

The US Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion for the Merida Initiative, an aid program that has provided equipment and training to Mexican law enforcement agencies.

But in his search for wall funds, Trump has ordered officials to scour US government departments and agencies in search of aid to the Mexican government and report back within 30 days.

Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said Mexico needs to do a better job of explaining why the country is important for US security.

“Now Mexico needs to make the case of, ‘Look, you are damn lucky you have a friendly nation on your southern border, and that’s worth thinking about,'” Wood said.

In a symbol of such cooperation last week, Mexico extradited the man who was considered the world’s most powerful drug baron, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, to New York on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.

– Let immigrants through –

While Trump claims that Mexico is not curbing illegal immigration, Velasco said the two countries have “one of the most successful (border) cooperations in the world.”

Under pressure from former president Barack Obama’s administration after a massive surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America in 2014, Mexico launched a crackdown on illegal immigration at its border with Guatemala.

Mexico deported 147,370 migrants last year, compared to 80,900 in 2013, most of them from Central America, according to interior ministry figures.

But Mexico could feel less inclined to help, letting Central American migrants cross the border and telling the Trump administration, “I’m not going to have any single cooperation on the border,” Velasco said.

The Trump administration ramped up the threats on the wall payment, with the White House floating the idea of a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico.

“If the United States imposes a tax of this type, Mexico will impose a similar one,” said Luis de la Calle, an economist who was among the negotiators of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.

NAFTA is also on the table, as demanded by Trump, but Mexican officials warned this week that the government could leave the pact if negotiations fail.

Calderon said Mexico could show Americans the importance of trade by cancelling imports of US corn, which average 10 million tons per year.

The former president said Mexico should make “Trump’s electoral base feel as quickly as possible the possible effects of cancelling” trade with Mexico.

Mexicans, meanwhile, launched a campaign on Twitter to boycott American products with the hashtag #AdiosProductosGringos (Goodbye gringo products).


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