MEXICO CITY — When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared with his counterpart from Mexico this week in Washington, there were smiles and mutual reassurances, with Pompeo insisting that the two countries are “neighbors, allies and friends.”
Behind the scenes, Mexico’s relationship with the United States is more about grimaces, anxiety and signs of severe strain.
Buffeted by harsh criticism from President Trump, and facing a presidential election that could bring a more confrontational leader to power, the Mexican government has found itself in an unusually tight bind. In one sign of its mounting frustration, over the past month, it has canceled meetings with other American counterparts, including a cross-border coordination session to fight drug trafficking and an annual military exchange, according to current and former U.S. and Mexican officials.
The steps were taken last month after Trump called for the deployment of National Guard troops to the border and sharply criticized Mexico for not doing more to stop a caravan of migrants from moving toward the United States. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto also has issued an unusual order to review all bilateral relations with the United States, a process that is underway amid a high-stakes renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
While Peña Nieto’s government insists that cooperation remains solid, Mexican officials acknowledge that this is a critical time.
“The relationship between Mexico and the United States finds itself at a defining moment,” Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign secretary, said while standing alongside Pompeo on Monday after their talks. “The decisions made by our governments in the coming months, including in the next days, will determine the relationship between our two countries in coming years and decades.”
Mexico has huge stakes in the bilateral relationship — the United States is its No. 1 trading partner. But Mexico’s government faces strong political pressure to respond to Trump’s actions, especially since the country is in the midst of a hard-fought campaign before the presidential election July 1.
Trump’s comments about the migrant caravan — “Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING,” to stop illegal immigration, the president wrote on Twitter — and his call for the deployment of National Guard troops to the border touched a raw nerve.
The Mexican Senate passed a nonbinding resolution urging the government to end cooperation with the United States. In a national address last month, Peña Nieto issued his most direct rebuke of Trump yet, saying Mexico wants to negotiate but not at the cost of its dignity or sovereignty. Peña Nieto then ordered his cabinet to review all bilateral relations with the United States.
At the time, Videgaray, the foreign secretary, said that the review would last “a few weeks.” Mexico’s decisions, he added, would be based on the “very public, notorious differences we have today with the United States.”
Mexican officials acknowledge that political tensions between the neighbors could jeopardize certain security programs involving both countries.
“They might be at risk,” Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, said in an interview in mid-April. “Not because knowledgeable people don’t think they’re useful — they’re important; they’re in the best interest of both nations. But because it gets to a point that it’s going to be hard for anybody in Mexico to sustain that politically.”
The Trump administration has downplayed the review, and Mexico’s decision has not derailed the dialogue between the two countries. Top Mexican officials are in Washington this week for talks about a new NAFTA. Still, analysts say Mexico could feel compelled to sacrifice some degree of cooperation if problems in the relationship persist.
“This would never have happened before Trump,” said Luis Rubio, president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit research group. “There’s a very negative atmosphere regarding the U.S. at this moment.”
Mexican officials privately described the cancellations of meetings as a direct, if subtle, response to Trump’s moves, a way to show displeasure without jeopardizing the broader discussions underway about trade.
“President Trump is telling his neighbors: ‘I’m militarizing the border.’ How do you expect them not to react?” said Craig Deare, who served early in Trump’s administration as senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. “If you undermine that still sort of fragile relationship, it’s going to take another who-knows-how-long to rebuild that trust and confidence.”
For the past several years, the graduating classes of two Mexican war colleges, the army’s College of National Defense and the navy’s Center for Superior Naval Studies, have sent dozens of officers on a week-long visit to the United States to meet with Pentagon officials and academics for a trip that is considered a capstone of their academic year. Iñigo Guevara, who has organized a half-day seminar for the students each year since 2014, was told of the trip’s cancellation on April 19 but was not given a reason.
“So far, this is a temporary pause motivated by domestic political posturing” because Peña Nieto’s government “is under extreme pressure to find an appropriate response to President Trump’s tweets,” said Guevara, a Washington-based expert on the U.S.-Mexico military relationship.
Another cancellation involved a delegation of several Mexican officials from the Foreign Ministry, army and navy who had been invited to Phoenix for a meeting last month with members of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). But after the governor of Arizona deployed National Guard troops to the state’s border with Mexico at Trump’s request, the Mexicans pulled out.
An ONDCP spokesman did not answer questions about the meeting but described the U.S.-Mexico relationship as “a critical part of our overall counterdrug efforts.”
A third meeting involving a visit by Mexican army officers to see counterparts with U.S. Northern Command was also called off, according to a Mexican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
A Northern Command spokeswoman referred questions about the scrubbed meeting to the Mexican government. A Mexican army spokesman would not discuss the canceled meetings but said that no changes have been made in the army’s relations with the U.S. military. Gutiérrez, Mexico’s ambassador to Washington, said that no action has yet been taken as a result of Peña Nieto’s review of bilateral programs.
“Some meetings or activities have been suspended or are being reprogrammed, but due to specific reasons pertaining [to] each case,” Gutiérrez said.
It’s not the first time Peña Nieto has hit the pause button on Washington. At the start of his tenure, in late 2012, Peña Nieto ordered a similar review, concerned that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had permitted U.S. security agencies too much access to the Mexican government. At the time, U.S. diplomats said it took about a year before the two bureaucracies began to fully mesh again. Peña Nieto ultimately allowed a wide range of joint efforts.
Throughout the Trump administration, U.S. officials have proudly described the security partnership with Mexico as robust, despite the political tensions. Both countries have hosted high-level meetings for top military officers and cabinet members to discuss the fight against drug trafficking, the supply of opium poppies and heroin, and guns coming into Mexico, among other issues.
In the past year, the Trump administration has supplied drones and geolocating technology to the Mexican military to help eradicate opium poppy fields and has collaborated with Mexican authorities to collect biometric data on migrants attempting to traverse Mexico. Last month, the State Department announced a $1.2 billion sale of helicopters to Mexico.
All that, however, is now being tested by Trump and by Mexico’s shifting politics.
Peña Nieto can’t run for reelection. The front-runner in the presidential race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has said he wants Mexico’s relationship with the United States to be less focused on security.
“We are going to cancel this purchase,” López Obrador told a rally Monday, referring to the deal to buy U.S. helicopters. “We don’t want war. We don’t want an arms buildup. We want peace.”
For now, Peña Nieto’s government urgently wants to reach a deal on NAFTA.
“Trump is very accustomed to this ‘you are fired’ attitude,” said Víctor Hermosillo y Celada, a Mexican senator from the opposition National Action Party who serves on the Senate’s foreign relations committee for North America. “In politics, this doesn't work. You have to have more respect.”