US-Mexico border scandals sink bilateral ties to historic low | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 01.07.2018
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US-Mexico border scandals sink bilateral ties to historic low

With Trump in the White House, US-Mexican relations have plummeted to abysmal depths. But with the two countries' fates intertwined, observers say Mexico has the means to stand up to its powerful neighbor in the north.

"Even for building a wall you need Mexican workers," Mexico's richest man and entrepreneur Carlos Slim said when US President Donald Trump took office in Washington.

This seemingly relaxed attitude, the belief that many of Trump's campaign promises wouldn't turn out that bad, has completely dissipated in Mexico by now. Trump has ceaselessly humiliated the US's southern neighbor not just during his campaign, but also during his first year in office. The building of a wall along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and curtail the drug trade is one of Trump's most important campaign promises.

"Even before his victory, Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals, rapists and drug dealers to the US, and he has stuck with this position," Washington-based Mexican journalist Gregorio Meraz tells DW.

Many Americans, Republicans included, had expected that Trump would take the heat out of his rhetoric once he was in the White House. That's what many Mexicans believed, too. But Trump never stopped attempting to humiliate Mexicans in particular and using the problem of illegal immigration for his own domestic means.

"His approval ratings went down after the separation of children and parents at the border," Meraz says. "But he did it to put the Democrats under pressure so they would agree to tighter immigration laws and approve 25 billion dollars for the border wall."

Watch video 03:16

Torn apart: life on the US-Mexico border

Mexico's policy of "subservience and defenselessness'

But many voices in Mexico are calling for more self-confidence from their leaders. They're saying their country should stop acting like a deer in the headlights when it comes to the US.

"Mexico's foreign policy is way too soft and toothless," says Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist at Mexico City's renowned Colegio de Mexico.

That was especially obvious in the case of the separated migrant children, Aguayo says.

"It's a policy of subservience and defenselessness, because President [Enrique] Pena Nieto isn't using Mexico's strength to stand up to the US," Aguayo explains. "But this has been the case ever since Obama's presidency." 

USA Aufnahmelager für illegale Einwanderer

Children separated from parents in border crossing cases in a cage at a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, in June 2018

Accepting no responsibility for Mexico's struggle

To prove his point, the political scientist points to a phone call between then-president Obama and Mexican president Pena Nieto in 2014. The two talked about the larger number of solo-traveling minors from Central America who were reaching the US border at the time.

"Barack Obama called Pena Nieto in June 2014 and asked him to tighten controls at Mexico's southern border. Pena Nieto agreed without asking for anything in return. He only did it because the US asked him to," Aguayo says.

The expert believes Pena Nieto could have demanded the US send more officers to the US-Mexico border to crack down on arms trafficking. But both sides have an asymmetric view of security and drug trade issues, according to Aguayo.

"Both Obama and Trump are rejecting any responsibility of the United States for the humanitarian tragedy in their neighboring country," Aguayo says. "Mexico is the country that Trump criticizes the most, without realizing that the US is supplying the drug cartels with trafficked guns."

Read more: Mexican lawmakers united in condemning Trump border policy

'Good fences make good neighbors'

Günter Maihold, deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is convinced that Trump really believes he can solve the immigration problem by building the wall – "solving" it for the US only, of course.

"In the face of the upcoming midterm elections, it's unrealistic to expect that the US will take up serious negotiations on this issue with the current or future Mexican administration," Maihold says. "Trump is following Reagan's line of 'good fences make good neighbors.'"

The verse is from a well-known poem by US poet Robert Frost. But Mexican political scientist Aguayo believes his country would do well to draw a clear line as well.

"Mexico has arguments and importance," he said. "When worse comes to worst, Mexico could sue the US arms industry by passing the issue on to multilateral organizations and asking them to investigate the US's responsibility for the illegal arms trade."

Whether that move would also make for good neighbors, though, is questionable.