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Trump's top deputies hope to shore up ties with a suspicious Mexico

Trump's top deputies hope to shore up ties with a suspicious Mexico
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves Germany after a meeting of foreign ministers last week. He is flying to Mexico City on Wednesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Mexico City on Wednesday on a mission to mend deeply frayed relations with the United States' southern neighbor.

John F. Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, was expected to join him later in the day in a bid to repair the once-close relationship, which began deteriorating when President Trump repeatedly criticized Mexico during his election campaign.

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Days after he took office, Trump argued on Twitter with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over Trump's demand that Mexico pay billions of dollars to build a massive wall along the border. The Mexican leader rebuffed Trump by canceling a planned visit to the White House.

Tillerson and Kelly will sit down with Peña Nieto on Thursday as well as with Mexico's secretaries of foreign affairs, the interior, finance, national defense and Navy. In addition to the wall, they are expected to discuss trade, counter-terrorism, immigration and other key bilateral concerns.

In Mexico, the perceived enmity from the new U.S. president has caused profound resentment and calls for Peña Nieto's administration to take a more forceful stand in bilateral affairs.

"The federal government should enter these negotiations with resolve and without hesitation," wrote columnist Clemente Castañeda Hoeflich  on Wednesday in the Excelsior newspaper. "This is a relation of equals between two countries, two governments and two presidents."

Yet Mexican officials must walk a fine line: appeasing get-tough calls from an irate domestic audience, without further alienating the leaders of Mexico's key trading partner at a time when the nation's economy is already shaky.

The talks take place under a fresh cloud, because this week the Trump administration released aggressive new guidelines on immigration enforcement, signed by Kelly, that could lead to deportation of millions of Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

The policy calls for using local and state authorities to enforce federal immigration laws, deporting even people who commit minor crimes, jailing more people while they await deportation hearings and trying to send illegal border crossers back to Mexico even if they aren't Mexican.

The move received blanket coverage in the Mexican press, all of it condemnatory. The front-page headline in the newspaper La Jornada blared that Trump had declared  "total war" against all of those living in the U.S. illegally.

The bilateral meetings are the first since Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray came to Washington in late January and met in private with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a key advisor to the president on foreign affairs.

Videgaray later said the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a crossroads.

"This is a moment of definition: The decisions we make in the coming months will determine how Mexico and the United States coexist for the next decades," he said last week at the margins of the Group of 20 economic summit in Bonn.

The overnight trip to Mexico City marks the third fence-mending foray this month by Trump's top deputies as they seek to shore up relations with longtime allies alarmed by Trump's often confusing signals on foreign policy and by tumult in the White House.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, as well as Tillerson and Kelly, fanned out in Europe to reassure allies that the administration remains committed to the NATO military alliance and to maintaining sanctions on a resurgent Russia, issues where Trump had raised doubts.

Mattis previously visited Japan and South Korea to reassure them that the White House does not plan to pull back from its security commitments in Northeast Asia, as candidate Trump had suggested.

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U.S. ties with Mexico ordinarily are little noticed far from the border, but Trump's harsh anti-Mexico rhetoric and policies have changed all that.

During the campaign last year, he blamed Mexico for sending rapists and criminals across the border and excoriated Mexico for what he said were unfair trade practices.

In addition to his vow to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, Trump has threatened to slap a punitive tax on imports, including cars, that are made in Mexico. He also has vowed to scrap or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 deal that eliminated almost all tariffs among the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

NAFTA is credited with vastly expanding trade — about $1.4 billion in goods now cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day — but at the cost of some U.S. jobs because the agreement made it easier for U.S. companies to move factories to Mexico.

In response, some Mexicans have called for national boycotts of U.S. brands and goods, using hashtags including #AdiosStarbucks, #AdiosWalmart, #AdiosCocacola and #AdiosProductosGringos, while lawmakers introduced a bill to stop buying American corn. Protesters formed human chains last weekend along parts of the border where Trump has vowed to build a wall.

Some Mexican officials also have countered with threats to end cooperation on joint efforts that target drug trafficking, illegal immigration and organized crime.

In recent years, Mexico has prevented thousands of Central Americans from flooding U.S. border crossings and has allowed extradition of drug lords, including Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, to the United States.

In Mexican congressional  hearings this week about the new ambassador-designate to Washington, one lawmaker, Sen. Gabriela Cuevas, questioned why Mexico should continue its policy of deporting U.S.-bound Central American migrants on behalf of Washington.

"If the United States wants dialogue on immigration matters, they should sit at the table like equals," Cuevas said. "Otherwise, what Mexico should do is leave the table and change its migratory policies with Central America."

Mexico also is pouring an estimated $50 million into its 50 diplomatic consulates in the United States to support its citizens who are under threat of deportation. Delaying removals could wind up clogging U.S. immigration courts and jails.

"We have been cooperating with United States for many years on these issues, because they asked us to, and because we have a friendly, trustful relationship," former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda  recently told CNN. "If that relationship disappears, the reasons for cooperation also disappear."

There seems to be little space for common ground, however.

Even if Tillerson and Kelly are able to calm Mexican tempers, Trump seems unlikely to back down from his demands for a wall, a cornerstone of his campaign.

For Peña Nieto, who is approaching the last year of his six-year term, there is little political capital to work with the White House given widespread umbrage in Mexico at the new American president.

"We know that damage has been done to the bilateral relationship in the last few months," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after an official trip to Mexico City last weekend.

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But Cardin voiced optimism for the future of U.S.-Mexico relations while taking a swipe at Trump and his penchant for tweeting.

"I'm confident the strength of our partnership and friendship with Mexico is dynamic enough to withstand 140-character broadsides or unrealistic demands," he said.

Trump's handling of relations with Mexico so far has largely relied on his inner circle, including Kushner, and not on the Latin America veterans at the State Department and National Security Council.

Craig Deare, who had been named National Security Council director for Western Hemisphere affairs, was fired late last week after he criticized how the administration was handling foreign policy.

Deare had complained to scholars during a private session at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington that foreign policy was too tightly controlled by Kushner and Trump's chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, according to one of the people who attended the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussion was private.

Deare said the president's top aides fostered dysfunction in the White House and blocked access to Trump to the detriment of actual policymaking, the person said.

The fallout from a fraying relationship between the two countries could be extensive.

Mexico and the rest of Latin America could turn away from an unfriendly Washington toward an eager-to-please China. That could cost the United States economically and in terms of strategic power, after decades in which Washington diligently sought to rebuild ties with the region.

In Mexico, Trump's antagonism, along with discontent with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, is fanning flames of renewed nationalism and stoking the prospects of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the next presidential election.

"We are now deeply concerned to see this [U.S.-Mexico] foundation shaken," six former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote in a letter published this month on the Wilson Center website.

"Public attitudes in both countries are being soured by exaggerated public accusations," they wrote. "Mexicans believe that their national 'dignity' has been insulted. Champions of closer cooperation with the United States are on the defensive. Nationalist voices are gaining traction. This is not in the United States' long-term interest."

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

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

4:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with the arrival of Tillerson and background on the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the meetings.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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