The U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship is on trial in more ways than one these days. Tested by sharp disagreements over trade, immigrant caravans and drug trafficking, these two neighbors learned long ago that it's better to engage in quiet diplomacy than to spat openly in public. The big question is whether President Donald Trump is getting the message.
South of the border, thousands of migrants have steadily made their way northward, prompting sharp anti-immigrant statements from Trump before the Nov. 6 election. The Mexican government, at first, did its best to stop the first caravan as migrants tried to cross from Guatemala. But after Trump's overt scare tactics designed to rally Republican votes, Mexico withdrew barriers and let the migrants proceed.
Mexico's leaders, whether conservative or liberal, have never taken kindly to U.S. threats. They typically will do exactly the opposite of what a confrontational U.S. president demands. If Trump's true desire is to stem unlawful U.S. border crossings, he'll get far greater cooperation from Mexico by toning down the scare-mongering rhetoric.
Examples abound throughout the history of the two nations' tortured relationship, especially when it comes to U.S. troops amassing on the border. A century ago, U.S. military forces staged incursions deep into Mexico while battling revolutionary general Pancho Villa. Mexico has never forgotten that affront to its sovereignty. When World War I erupted, Mexico refused to back the United States and even briefly toyed with supporting Germany.
The nadir in modern relations was reached in 1985 after Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by Mexican drug lords. Mexico balked at cooperating in the investigation, prompting the United States to hire bounty hunters to abduct two Mexican witnesses to testify in U.S. courts. Bilateral cooperation on drug trafficking and immigration plummeted for more than a decade afterward.
Only in recent years have the two sides begun working in tandem. The most dramatic symbol of that new cooperation is the trial now taking place in New York of Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Guzman had eluded Mexican law enforcers for years and had twice escaped from maximum-security prisons. Mexican leaders conceded that the only hope of bringing him to justice was to extradite him to the United States. The January 2017 extradition, timed for the final day of Barack Obama's presidency, was a rarity in bilateral relations.
A day later, Trump infamously linked "this American carnage" to immigration, drugs and criminal gangs in his inaugural speech. He has only amplified his Mexico-bashing rhetoric since then.
The likelihood of more high-profile extraditions of drug lords diminishes by the day. The probability that Mexico will stand aside when future immigrant caravans flood its borders only increases when Trump allows insults and threats to define the bilateral relationship. This is hardly a formula for success.
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