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U.S. ambassador quits in latest sign of roiling U.S. relations with Mexico

Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said Thursday that she is quitting

Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and one of the State Department's most experienced Latin America hands, said Thursday that she is quitting in what appeared to be fallout of the Trump administration's roiling relations with Mexico.

Jacobson, who spent 31 years as a diplomat, becomes the latest veteran foreign service officer to step down in an unusual exodus of senior talent under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, amid low morale and drastic budget cuts at the State Department.

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Joseph Yun, special representative on North Korea, resigned this week, and John Feeley, the U.S. ambassador to Panama, in January announced his decision to leave. Feeley said he could no longer advocate for U.S. policy in the Trump administration.

The State Department unit that handles Latin America, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, has been especially hard hit even as Washington and Mexico seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, battle over immigration issues, cooperate on interdiction of drug trafficking and organized crime, and face other joint concerns.

In addition to Jacobson and Feeley, a 28-year veteran, Thomas Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs, announced his retirement last month after 34 years at the State Department. Shannon, a former ambassador, was seen as a foremost expert on Latin America.

President Trump has yet to nominate an assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Tillerson has faced criticism from members of Congress and foreign policy experts who say he is steadily dismantling the State Department. He has rejected the criticism, saying he is trying to improve efficiency and streamline operations.

Jacobson's departure comes at a particularly difficult time in traditionally close U.S.-Mexican relations. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto called off an official visit to the White House — for the second time — after a testy phone call with President Trump on Feb. 20.

Trump reportedly insisted on the call that Mexico pay to build a border wall, as he had vowed during the 2016 campaign. Mexico has repeatedly rejected that demand, and the dispute has blocked an official visit since Trump took office last year.

Jacobson, 57, did not mention the bilateral tension in her resignation memo, which was distributed to employees of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. She said her resignation would take effect May 5, the Cinco de Mayo holiday.

"I have come to the difficult decision that it is the right time to move on to new challenges and adventures," Jacobson wrote. "This decision is all the more difficult because of my profound belief in the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and knowledge that it is at a crucial moment."

Jacobson saw her authority undercut at times as Luis Videgaray, Mexico's finance secretary and later foreign secretary, built a back-channel relationship to the White House through Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor.

Trump had given Kushner the Mexico portfolio, among other responsibilities, and Videgaray has visited the White House without telling the State Department.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that Tillerson telephoned Videgaray last week to notify him of Jacobson's decision to step down.

The ministry praised Jacobson's "responsibility and commitment … not just in Mexico but for the benefit of the entire region." It thanked her for working to build a "frank and open relationship" between the two governments.

But experts say representing the Trump administration to the Peña Nieto government had become increasingly difficult.

"The last year has been particularly tricky for [Jacobson] because of her commitment to the bilateral relationship and President Trump's propensity to send mixed, sometimes harshly critical messages to Mexico's people and their president," said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin America program at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

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Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States who now works as a consultant on both sides of the border, said Jacobson would be "sorely missed … at a truly trying moment" in the relationship.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. had been fortunate to have Jacobson's "steady hand" amid "the Trump administration's all-out offensive on the U.S.-Mexico relationship."

Her resignation is "another example of the Trump administration pushing our most accomplished diplomats to the exits," Engel said. "This White House's continued assault on America's diplomatic corps is causing damage to our national security that will take many years to repair."

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert pushed back, however, contending that the recent departure of so many senior diplomats, including Jacobson, would not harm U.S. diplomatic efforts.

The high number of unfilled vacancies and resignations "doesn't mean there aren't other experts" at State who can handle the issues, Nauert told reporters at a briefing Thursday.

Jacobson previously served as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, built up security cooperation between Washington and Mexico City, and played a key role in renewing U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba under former President Obama.

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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