Trump is keeping the pressure up on Mexico, but he 'risks cutting off his nose to spite his face'

Trump is keeping the pressure up on Mexico, but he 'risks cutting off his nose to spite his face'

Donald Trump homeland security

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump, next to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, at the US Customs and Border Protection's National Targeting Center in Sterling, Virginia, February 2, 2018.

  • US-Mexico relations have been fraught during President Donald Trump's first year in office.
  • Despite that tension, the two countries continue to cooperate on a range of issues.
  • But Trump's rhetoric and policies Mexico sees as detrimental may cause those ties to fray.

President Donald Trump has kept pressure on Mexico, pushing for a renegotiation of NAFTA, calling for tougher border security, and criticizing the US's southern neighbor over growing crime and violence there.

Trump's skepticism of Mexico and others in the region on was evident on Friday, during a Customs and Border Protection meeting in Virginia.

The event focused on US efforts to halt flows of drugs and migrants to the US, touching on the roles Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia have as cocaine-producing countries and on the roles of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala as origin points for migrants - as well as on Mexico as a transit area for both.

"These countries are not our friends," Trump said. "We think they're our friends, and we send them massive aid, and I won't mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them - we send them massive aid, and they're pouring drugs into our country and they're laughing at us."


US Mexico border patrol marijuana drug seizure bust

(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

US border-patrol agents carry bales of marijuana they found along the highway near Ryan, Texas, about 20 miles from the US-Mexico border, March 28, 2017.

The acting Customs and Border Protection chief, when asked what Latin American countries were doing to halt drug flows, told Trump that the US has been "partnering closely with these governments to increase their effectiveness" and that there had been "significant improvement in our dialogue" with Mexico over the past year.

Mexico isn't the only country in the region Trump has criticized, and the two countries continue to cooperate on bilateral and regional issues while politicians on both sides have touted what they say are strong relations, but observers warn that frays in the close ties could become more significant - and more damaging.

The possibility Trump's rhetoric and policies could undermine economic, political, and societal ties has been well covered, said Rebecca Bill Chavez, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, on Monday. "But we don't hear as much about the potential impact on our security cooperation."

That cooperation expanded beyond a counter-narcotics focus to more traditional defense activities during the Obama administration, according to Chavez, who held her Defense Department post from 2013 to 2017, but fighting drug-trafficking remained an important part of the relationship.


"In jeopardizing counter-narcotics collaboration, President Trump risks cutting off his nose to spite his face," she said during a panel event. "I mean this is a policy priority for Trump. He's declared the opioid epidemic a public-health emergency, and ... the US supply-side approach requires Mexican assistance and collaboration."

John Kelly Mexico Guerrero opium poppy heroin

Mexican Defense Secretariat/Twitter

Then-US Homeland Security chief John Kelly, in the blue shirt, observes opium-poppy eradication operations in Mexico's Guerrero state, July 6, 2017.

"In Mexico, it's the military that has the drug-enforcement mission, which includes fighting cartels and poppy eradication," she added. "A deterioration in our defense cooperation, it threatens stability and security of our hemisphere in areas from illicit trafficking to migration and natural-disaster-related humanitarian crises to destabilizing crime and violence."

Comments from the White House may further stoke frustration in Mexico, Chavez said. "I think it exacerbates a lot of the historical problems we've had."

Among the Mexican public, displeasure with the US appears to be growing.


The Americas Barometer, a survey of public opinion in the region, found that distrust of the US rose from 31% of Mexicans to 84% in the three months after Trump's election, according to Chavez.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in spring 2017 found that 65% of Mexicans had a negative opinion of the US, up from 29% in 2015, while only 30% expressed a positive opinion, down from 66% two years prior. Ninety-three percent of Mexicans said they had no confidence in Trump doing the right thing regarding world affairs.

Luis Videgaray Rex Tillerson Mexico Secretary of State

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, February 23, 2017.

Senior Mexican officials have spoken highly of bilateral relations under Trump. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said this weekend that "in many ways the relationship today is more fluid. It's closer than it was with previous administrations." Though that assessment may be a reflection of the diminished role of the State Department and the concentration of diplomatic decision-making in the White House.

Videgaray has even sought to put a positive spin on the potential deportation of some 600,000 Mexican-born DACA recipients from the US, which he said "would be a great gain for Mexico and a loss for the United States," given that group's relatively high levels of education and work experience. (Though many of them have no ties to Mexico and would likely struggle to adjust.)


Such sentiments may not be common among Mexican officials however.

Donald Trump and Pena Nieto

Henry Romero/REUTERS

Then-candidate Donald Trump with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico.

"Most of the politicians at all levels with all parties ... despise Donald trump and most of his cabinet," said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

He pointed to the extradition of Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, which took place in the final hours of Obama's term, as a sign Mexican officials didn't want to give Trump what could be seen as a win.

Vigil, who maintains contact with government, security, and intelligence officials in Mexico, said the negative perception of Trump stemmed from the "very negative rhetoric that he espouses" about border security and immigration, as well as about NAFTA, which many in Mexico regard as mostly beneficial for the US, he told Business Insider.


Videgaray himself has said a bad outcome in NAFTA talks could undercut cooperation on security and immigration.

In addition to cooperation on counternarcotics efforts, Mexico has stepped up its efforts to stop undocumented migration, "and Mexico is working to secure its southern border as well, but if this whole situation falters, the one that's going to be worse for wear is the United States, not Mexico," said Vigil, who recounted his experiences working undercover in "Deal."

"I do think this challenge is real," Chavez said at the Wilson Center event. "Mexico's heading into an election year. Anti-Trump sentiment continues to grow in Mexico, and that increases the political costs of partnering with the US. It's a reality."