Mexico Sets Domestic Priorities Aside to Assuage Trump and Avert Tariffs
MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s president came to office promising a fresh approach to combat record-high homicide rates: a new National Guard made up of soldiers and police. Now, in a deal to assuage his American counterpart and avert a trade war, Andrés Manuel López Obrador will have to deploy that some of that force to patrol borders instead.
Under an agreement hammered out in marathon negotiations with American officials over the last few days, Mexico agreed to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border with Guatemala. It also agreed to allow more asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending in the United States.
The timing and many other details about these steps remain uncertain. But officials in both countries say all this is meant to take place quickly — an indication that, at least for now, Mr. López Obrador chose to prioritize appeasing President Trump over domestic priorities like combating violent crime.
“What few and poorly trained resources we have we will immediately put to the service of the U.S. Border Patrol along our southern border,” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a Mexico City University, and a critic of the National Guard strategy. “We are making Mexican territory a buffer zone for the U.S. border and placing Mexican bodies as a barrier for the U.S. and its immigration policy.”
The deal came as Mr. Trump threatened to slap escalating tariffs on Mexican imports if the country did not halt the surge of migrants passing through its territory on their way to the United States. The two sides announced the agreement Friday evening.
It put the brakes on initial tariffs of 5 percent on all Mexican goods that were scheduled to go into effect on Monday. At least for now.
The clock is running and in 90 days, both sides will assess the results and potentially announce new measures if they are found wanting.
In addition to the troops, which will make migration issues a primary focus, Mexico agreed to expand a controversial program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, more commonly referred to as the Remain in Mexico Plan.
The program, announced earlier this year, forces some asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are being processed in the United States. It has resulted in the return of 8,000 people to Mexico — an action that has been legally challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.
All along, Mexico claimed that the United States was imposing its will on them by returning the migrants, and that it had never formally agreed to anything. Some days, officials have said, they refuse to take migrants back. On others, they allow a few to return.
But as Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Mexico on migration has increased, so, too, has the willingness of the López Obrador administration to take measures to calm its northern neighbor.
After initially saying the Remain in Mexico program was a pilot, they quickly expanded it to new cities. Now, as part of Friday’s deal, the Mexican authorities have agreed to expand it across the entire border.
Experts say Mexico is not a safe place for migrants fleeing the violence and poverty of Central America. Last year, the nation reached homicide levels not seen since it began collecting data more than two decades back.
Organized crime controls much of the migrant flow along sections of the border, and violence is a fact of life. Shootings are common, as are bloody battles between warring cartels.
Mass graves of migrants have been found. Exposing migrants to a lengthy wait in some of the more dangerous sections of the border, such as in the state of Tamaulipas, would, according to many human rights activists, be a death sentence.
To implement the agreement, both nations will need to staff up and put protocols in place to manage the returnees. Mexico will need to find the money to fulfill its promises to employ, educate and tend to the health needs of migrants who are sent back — many of them as families — at a time when the country’s economy is sluggish, its currency is weakened, and extreme austerity measures are cutting into basic services for Mexicans.
And there is no guarantee the measures will show results — especially within the three months demanded by the United States.
Many are left wondering when the next threat from Mr. Trump might come, and whether, like this time, it will imperil trade and their economic welfare.
“It still leaves a memory that will not die, that one day that if there is a policy dispute between the two countries, then trade can be a casualty of that process,” said Alberto Ramos, the head of the Latin America Economic Research team in the Global Investment Research Division at Goldman Sachs.
The numbers are daunting. This week, the United States Border Patrol announced that migrant apprehensions rose in May to more than 130,000, a 13-year-high. The bulk of them were traveling as families.
But in the agreement struck Friday, Mexico managed to avert the toughest demand from the United States. American negotiators were pressing the Mexican delegation to accept a vast overhaul of asylum protocols that could have been far more problematic for the country.
On the table were two options: the policy referred to as “third safe country,” which would require anyone seeking asylum in the United States who passed through Mexico to apply there first.
The other alternative would require anyone seeking asylum to apply in the first country they entered. Hondurans arriving in Guatemala would have to apply there, for instance, and Guatemalans arriving in Mexico would have to apply there, instead of pushing through to the United States.
In the end, Mexico accepted neither and bought itself time to show the Trump administration it is serious about slowing the flows of migrants.
“Getting this agreement, with whatever faults and uncertainty, was critical for both the U.S. and Mexico,” said Carlos Pascual, a former United States ambassador to Mexico and a senior vice president at IHS Markit, an energy consultancy.
“Once in a spiraling vortex of dueling tariffs it is almost impossible to get out of it,” Mr. Pascual said. “At least now Mexico and the U.S. have a chance to avoid a battle of tariffs that would only hurt both countries.”
In the end, though, tariffs would have been far more harmful to Mexico than to the United States.
Troubled by an anemic economy and shaky investor confidence, Mr. López Obrador is struggling to fund his ambitions to reshape his nation.
Credit ratings agencies have taken shots at the nation and its national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, which is writhing beneath the weight of some $100 billion in debt. The president’s promises to rescue the flagging enterprise have scarcely put the agencies at ease.
Nor has his promise to build a new $8 billion refinery that many analysts say will not only be costly, but also of little use.
Much of Mr. López Obrador’s agenda and many of the promises he made during a campaign that led to a landslide win were inward-looking. His desire to lift up the poor, revitalize national enterprises, end corruption and build new infrastructure all bear the same domestic emphasis.
But those same plans have helped put his economy in dire straits. That made it easier for Mr. Trump to squeeze Mexico, forcing the president to deal with international issues he would prefer to ignore.
And that appears to be one reason Mr. López Obrador has refused to trade blows with Mr. Trump.
He simply cannot win.
“It is true this is a very unequal relationship with a lot of asymmetry and where the balance tips on the American side,” said Fausto Hernández, a professor of economics at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. “This is a war of signals, an emotional combat, and completely devised for electoral purposes.”
And so, Mexico’s new president appears to have decided that the nation has more to lose by antagonizing the United States than it has to gain despite calls from some pockets of society to stand up for Mexico.
This posture was on display this week when Mr. Trump said Mexico needed the United States more than the United States needed Mexico.
Mr. López Obrador responded only by saying, “I am the owner of my silence.”