In Mexico, growing fears of crisis in relationship with US over Trump tariff threat

Truck drivers wait to speak to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer soon after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry cargo facility in San Diego on June 7, 2013


By MARY BETH SHERIDAN | The Washington Post | Published: June 5, 2019

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's government is trying to delicately negotiate its way out of looming U.S. tariffs. But many fear that its talks with the Trump administration could break down, leading to a backlash here and long-term damage to the bilateral relationship.

Mexican officials are eager to make a deal - worrying that the tariffs threatened by President Donald Trump could further slow this country's lethargic economy while also hurting U.S. businesses and consumers. They also must contend with a Mexican public that is irritated by what it views as bullying. 

A poll published this week by the newspaper El Financiero gave a sense of the narrow path Mexican leaders are treading. An overwhelming number of respondents - 84 percent - said the nation should support President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's diplomatic drive. But only 40 percent thought Mexico should cut off the flow of unauthorized migrants as Trump demanded.

"Regardless of how this story ends, Trump could scupper US-Mexico relations and lose #Mexico as a strategic partner and ally," wrote Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, in a tweet.

Trump has threatened to impose tariffs starting at 5 percent and gradually rising to 25 percent on all Mexican exports to the United States unless Mexican authorities prevent U.S.-bound Central Americans from crossing their country. López Obrador, a leftist who took office in December, has sought to maintain smooth relations with the U.S. president. He sent a high-level delegation led by his foreign minister to Washington to meet Wednesday with senior U.S. officials.

López Obrador said that he was "optimistic" that "we will reach an accord before the 10th of June," when the first round of penalties would be imposed.

But Trump has indicated that the bilateral meetings won't change his plans. "I think it's more likely that the tariffs go on," he said Tuesday in London.

Mexican officials have largely avoided discussion of retaliatory steps they could take. They could slap their own tariffs on U.S. products, potentially increasing pressure on Trump to cut a deal.

In the recent newspaper poll, 57 percent of respondents wanted Mexico to strike back with its own taxes on U.S. goods.

Trump's gambit has threatened to upend plans by the U.S. and Mexican congresses to ratify the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The tariffs could become the biggest bilateral crisis yet for U.S. and Mexican leaders. Mexico is heavily dependent on trade with the United States - the destination of 80 percent of its exports.

"The bilateral relationship could be harmed for a long time" if an agreement is not reached soon, said Gustavo Mohar, a former top intelligence and migration official in Mexico. "President Trump is sending a very worrying signal about what Mexico faces while he's in the White House."

El Financiero's poll found that only 16 percent of those surveyed expressed a favorable view of bilateral relations, compared with 33 percent in March.

The White House has not said exactly what it expects from Mexico. The Mexican delegation to the talks has not tipped its hand on what it may offer.

But senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security have said they want Mexico to strengthen security on its border with Guatemala and intensify its investigation of smuggling rings that transport most migrants across Mexican territory.

Mohar said it would be a challenge to fortify Mexico's 540-mile-long southern border, which passes through jungle and mountains, and meanders along a river.

Further complicating matters is Mexico's lack of resources. The country's police and military are fighting powerful organized-crime groups that have killed tens of thousands of people in recent years.

Mexico "has a difficult strategic decision, because it would have to decrease security forces in other parts of the country that also require the presence of the authorities," Mohar said.

Mexico has stepped up immigration enforcement dramatically in recent weeks - apprehending more than 22,000 unauthorized migrants in May, the highest monthly number in its history. But its poorly funded migration institute has been overwhelmed as families have poured out of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in hopes of reaching the United States.

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