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U.S. and Mexico agree to agree — and skirt controversy

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From left, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions at a State Department news conference Dec. 14, 2017
(Shawn Thew / EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Call it not talking about the Wall in the Room.

Senior U.S. and Mexican government officials on Thursday pledged to continue working together to fight international drug-trafficking organizations and other cross-border criminal enterprises.

They would not, however, be drawn into discussing ways that President Trump’s vows to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and efforts to renegotiate the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement have soured relations between the two nations after two decades of improving ties.

Trump’s belligerent remarks about Mexico and Mexicans during the campaign last year, and his insistence that Mexico will pay for the proposed multibillion-dollar border wall, which the Mexican government refuses to do, have added to the strains.

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But Mexican officials insisted Thursday that negotiations to improve security from transnational crime and terrorism would not be derailed.

“I want to be absolutely clear: Mexico will cooperate with the United States in security matters because it is in the interest of Mexico and Mexicans,” said Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

“No bilateral issue will change our focus on security,” agreed Mexico’s interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.

They and Mexico’s acting attorney general, Alberto Elias Beltran, met at the State Department with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan for the latest high-level meeting on improving border security and combating drug trafficking. Among other measures, they signed a memo of cooperation for sharing biometrics of known criminals.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled to preside but went to lunch instead at the White House with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.

Trump threatened to pull out of NAFTA during the campaign last year, and Mexican officials hinted at the time that they might slow cooperation in stopping illegal immigration northward if he did. But with the U.S., Mexico and Canada negotiating to redraft parts of the trilateral accord, Mexican officials on Thursday appeared determined to dispel that notion.

At least in public, they also avoided addressing the impact of U.S. demands to rewrite key provisions in the trade deal, changes that could hurt Mexico’s economy. Mexico faces presidential elections next year, and Trump has managed to rev up anti-American sentiment to a level not seen there in years.

Instead, each official emphasized cooperation and agreed that drug-trafficking networks had to be fought “along every link in the chain,” as Videgaray put it at a news conference, from production and distribution in Mexico to purchase and consumption in the U.S., and all the financial facilitators in between.

“Close collaboration is the only way we can tackle a problem that has no respect for borders,” Sullivan said.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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