Understanding the US-Mexico Relationship

There exists a disconnect about the relationship between México and the United States. In México, the U.S. is generally seen as the Goliath to the north, while in the U.S., Americans see México as the source of drugs and undocumented immigration. The U.S.-Canada border is the largest land border between two countries. It gets very little attention relative to the U.S.-Mexican border, which is only the tenth largest land border in the world. Economically, the United States and México are fully integrated as neither nation can afford to disengage economically. However, both countries remain largely disconnected as far as the general population is concerned. Case in point are the Democrat presidential nominees who were unable to name the current Mexican president.

For Americans, México is either the source of undocumented immigration, drugs or both and sometimes sunny beaches and tourist destinations. For Mexicans, the United States is generally seen with admiration and trepidation at the same time. Governmental interaction between the two countries is generally distant publicly while the back-channels keep the economic engines humming on both sides of the border.

To understand the relationship between the two countries it is important to understand that for the United States, México, at best, is the cousin that families must tolerate during holidays but generally ignore the rest of the year. For the American government global geopolitics are more important than the U.S.-México relationship provided México does not become the launching pad for Communism during the Cold War or terrorism post 9/11. The drug issue is sometimes the focus when other international problems are not preoccupying the U.S.

For México, the relationship can best be described as the preservation of Mexican sovereignty and culture while keeping the integrated economic engine humming along. Most focus on the Mexican sovereignty sensitivity when discussing the U.S.-México relationship ignoring the other important issue for Mexicans, Mexican culture.

For many decades, Mexicans feared the erosion of the Mexican culture by the expansion of American culturalism. Although the fear existed, it was rarely articulated or understood even in México. But the fear, nonetheless, existed.

To understand this, one must understand the evolution of the Mexican national identity.

The Mexican Revolution is generally understood to be a battle of ideology, specifically land reform equalization. But the Mexican Revolution was also the catalyst for the modern Mexican identity.

Before the Mexican Revolution, Mexicans experienced endless sectarian (religious & economic) wars interspersed with numerous U.S. interventions including the loss of almost half of the Mexican territory.

Prior to the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican state was divided.

The Mexican Revolution, for the first time, cemented the Mexican identity – a unified country under one flag. Regardless of the differences among Mexicans, post the Revolution, the unity of the Mexican state always remained intact.

It was this national identity that feared American interference that governs the U.S.-México relationship to this day, although it has evolved over time.

The best way to illustrate this relationship reality is via the U.S.-México military cooperation initiatives.

Prior to World War II, there was very limited interaction or cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican militaries. World War II forced the United States to see México as a strategic partner for the defense of the United States. Both countries agreed to cooperate in the mutual defense of their nations.

But the World War II cooperation was short lived. It ended 1948.

Both countries kept military integration distant.

In 1980, the United States successfully closed off the Caribbean drug corridors.

Thus, drug trafficking shifted to México, making México the new drug corridor into the U.S. At first, the Mexican government tried to keep the Americans at bay, trying to resolve the drug problem internally. But in 1985, the drug smugglers killed DEA agent Enrique Camarena, forcing the Mexican government to deal directly with the drug issues under increased pressure from the U.S. government.

In 1987, the Miguel de la Madrid government declared drug trafficking as a national security matter to placate U.S. pressure to tackle the drug problem.

However, U.S.-México security cooperative profiles remained relatively unchanged.

Much has been argued about the U.S.-México relationship during the Cold War with the U.S. generally seeing the Mexican government as aloof at best. This is especially true with the Cuban issue during the Cold War. For Americans, Mexicans were generally pro-Cuba and thus tolerant of Communism at best, or outright pro-Communist.

But that mindset ignores the reality that for many Mexicans, beyond sovereignty being their biggest concern was that Americans would displace the Mexican culture. Tacos were soon to be displaced by hamburgers, was the fear.

Publicly, the Mexican government disdained the fear of a Communist foothold in the Americas, but privately, the Mexican government let its U.S. counterparts know that when it came to act, the Mexican government would have America’s back. The Mexican government privately feared a Communist infiltration of México. It acted accordingly by surveilling Soviet diplomatic posts and photographing most visitors returning from Cuba. The Mexican government also provided backchannel support to the U.S. government’ efforts to curtail Communist infiltration of the Western Hemisphere.

Yet, publicly, the Mexican government kept a public stance of non-interventionism in the internal affairs of other nations. Much of this had to do with the idea of keeping cultural identity from being dominated by the American powerhouse.

When NAFTA was adopted in 1994, the economic integration between both countries began to fully integrate making it difficult for either country to ignore the other. The economic integration is the glue that keeps both countries limited as to how to deal with each other.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the United States put drug trafficking on the back burner to focus on the issue of terrorism. While America was distracted with terrorism and further enforcing its border security to keep terrorists out, the drug mafias adopted to the new reality of border security.

This led to open warfare between drug gangs.

In 2006, in response to the increased violence from the Mexican drug gangs, Felipe Calderón (PAN 2006-2012) declared open warfare against the drug dealers. Calderón declared war on the drug gangs only ten days into his administration.

During this time, the United States focus on terrorism began to wind down and the U.S. government started to refocus on the drug problem. This led to the Mérida Initiative (2007-2010). The Mérida Initiative, for the first time, acknowledged that the drug problem was the co-responsibility of the United States and México. The U.S. henceforth took the co-responsibility of dealing with drugs.

However, the Mérida Initiative that the United States committed to México was symbolic.

The U.S. committed $1.6 billion toward the initiative. México, on the other hand, spent about $7 billion (USD) during an 18-month period during Calderón’s administration. According to Forbes, in 2013, the Mexican government spent about $172.7 billion fighting the drug gangs.

Clearly, the Mérida Initiative represents a token commitment to the shared problem.

However, the Mérida Initiative brought the Mexican and United States intelligence agencies and military closer together. The drug problem was one reason for the rapprochement between both governments.

The other was the evolution of the Mexican identity.

The Ernesto Zedillo (PRI) administration (1994-2000) saw the first evolution of México’s cultural political identity. Zedillo moved away from the Mexican Revolution-centric national identity towards a more formal Mexican national identity focused more on cohesive nationalism about being Mexican and less about the reforms of the Revolution.

The Vicente Fox (PAN) administration (2000-2006) was the first time that the PRI lost a national election. The Fox administration reinforced the national identity around the new ideal of a México that is cohesive of its diverse culture and identity. The national identity thus transformed away from the culture of endless wars and American interventions and refocused on what it is to be Mexican in the new Mexican order.

The first order of business for the new Mexican identity was dealing with the drug violence. Calderón tried to impose state control over the drug gangs. However, the weak Mexican institutions were usurped by the drug money and the violent response of the drug trafficking organizations as they realigned to face the new reality from the Mexican government.

Although Calderón generally dismantled the top-to-bottom hierarchy of the drug gangs it resulted in the unintended consequence of fragmenting the power order of the gangs into fragmented mini cartels looking to dominate the drug trade.

As a result, the Mexican population lived in fear and, as a consequence, they tried to bring back order to the chaos by bringing back the PRI with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI 2012-2018). But the genie was already out of the bottle. Without a strong hierarchical leadership controlling the drug trade from top to bottom, the violence increased across México.

The Mexican people continued to fear the rising violence and disillusioned with the PAN and the PRI looked elsewhere for a solution.

They saw in Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Morena 2018-2024), usually referred to AMLO as their new hope. AMLO offered to resolve the violence through inclusiveness, negotiating with the drug gangs and creating a national police force to address corruption and abuse in the military.

Basically, AMLO wanted to return the military back to the barracks and let the civilian authority deal with the violence through a national police force.

But, AMLO also wants to return México to the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of equality across the nation. AMLO has brought back the Revolution as the political rhetoric of the nation.

AMLO soon recognized that the U.S.-México economy is too intertwined to ignore it. Although AMLO preferred to focus on internal problems, he was forced to engage with the threat of Donald Trump’s antagonism toward México and Trump’s threats on the Mexican economy. Without the NAFTA economy, AMLO understood that his national agenda could not be funded.

To avoid an economic disaster for his domestic agenda, AMLO has taken a two-fold approach to the NAFTA, now the USMCA, economy. The first was to not allow Trump’s attacks to dominate the narrative between both countries. Rather than engage directly with Trump, AMLO has chosen to ignore his taunts and instead focus in placating him.

The most obvious is the realignment of the newly created Mexican National Police. AMLO engaged the national police in the interdiction of migrants traversing through Mexican territory on their way to the United States, instead of their original intended purpose of dealing with rising drug violence.

In so doing, AMLO left a vacuum for the drug gangs. AMLO had curtailed the Mexican military’s drug war focus when he took office in keeping with his promise to negotiate with the drug gangs while addressing the perception that the military was responsible for the violence.

AMLO has now been forced to reengage the Mexican military but at the cost of lost time resulting in a stronger adversary who was able to reequip while the Mexican government was distracted. The Trump administration has made matters worse as it has focused on immigration and building a wall instead of directly supporting the engagement of the drug gangs. Trump’s nationalist rhetoric may have also pushed back U.S.-México military and intelligence cooperation. How much is yet to be determined.

AMLO is now facing national discord about the rising violence, especially with the rising femicides. It is too soon to tell how much the national discord would distract AMLO’s national agenda. The United States is now in the midst of its presidential elections, distracting it from México.

NAFTA, the key catalyst keeping México and the United States aligned remains firmly in place, although it is now named the USMCA. AMLO can now refocus on his national agenda without the distraction of an economic upheaval. However, AMLO now faces national discord with the rising violence.

This year will be chaotic for the U.S.-México relationship as both sides are distracted. AMLO by the violence and his inability to deal with it with his original plan of a national police force. The United States will be too focused on the elections to give serious thought on how to deal with the drug gangs’ rising violence. As long as the violence generally remains on the Mexican side, the U.S. will leave the status-quo intact.

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