On Tuesday, a half-dozen Canadian officials — including Tricia Geddes, the top civil servant at the Department of Public Safety — met their counterparts in Mexico City for the second Trilateral Fentanyl Committee Meeting.
The commission came into being after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador annoyed U.S. officials in March by insisting fentanyl is not produced in Mexico, and by blaming the U.S. opioid epidemic on poor American family values.
“There is a lot of disintegration of families, there is a lot of individualism, there is a lack of love, of brotherhood, of hugs and embraces,” he said.
Mexico was a mere transit country for fentanyl from China, the president insisted in his daily morning public presentation. “We already have the proof,” he added.
He was sharply contradicted by the U.S. administration and by reports presented by his own Ministry of Defence. In the wake of the fiasco, Mexico agreed to set up the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee.
On Thursday, Anne Milgram, the director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told a congressional subcommittee that fentanyl — “the deadliest drug … we have ever faced” — is killing nearly 200 Americans a day.
“To be very clear, these pills are being mass-produced in Mexico,” she said. “Fentanyl is being mass-produced in Mexico.”
The fight over fentanyl has been a rare case of pushback from the U.S. and Canada against Mexico’s most powerful president in many years.
Both governments have largely stayed out of the fray as Lopez Obrador, often referred to as “Amlo”, implements his “Fourth Transformation” (or “4T”), a supposed revamp of Mexico’s government unprecedented since the 1910 revolution.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden both experienced Amlo’s soapbox style in person when they travelled to Mexico in January for the North American Leaders Summit. There, Amlo took 28 minutes to answer one reporter’s questions while the other two leaders stood silently to either side.
Biden also sat for a lecture from Amlo about the United States’ “disdain” for Latin America.
“We’re true partners,” Biden said of the trilateral relationship.
But as Mexico cranks up its campaign machinery for what promises to be a critical general election next year, strains that have built up between it and its North American neighbours under Amlo are coming to the surface.
‘Not an ally or a partner’
On July 14, a group of Republican-affiliated think tanks published an open letter warning that “a generation of cooperative and friendly U.S.-Mexico relations has collapsed.”
“Sadly, the Mexican government is not an ally to the United States, and can no longer properly be described as a partner,” the letter stated.
The letter accused President Lopez Obrador of working “in conscious and willing symbiosis” with “Mexican criminal cartels” and of having “expressed his openness to a pact with the cartels, and spoken of his willingness to defend them from American action.”
Amlo’s government, the letter said, was “failing in its obligation to exercise full sovereignty over its own territory and citizenry” and was “increasingly antagonistic toward a free Mexican civil society.”
“The Mexican relationship with the U.S. Congress is broken,” said Jose Diaz Briseno, who covers U.S.-Mexican relations as Washington correspondent for the Mexican national newspaper Reforma.
“Both Democrats and Republicans have a lot of nervousness about what’s happening in Mexico. The security situation is something that has been mentioned by several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as something that really impacts not only Mexico but also communities in the U.S.”
Milgram told Congress this week that Mexico’s two strongest criminal syndicates, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation, have 45,000 members working in 100 countries around the world. Several American lawmakers are pushing legislation that would see the U.S. designate Mexican criminal organizations as terrorist organizations — a measure Amlo strongly opposes.
Amlo’s official policy toward the crime wave that has seen over 200,000 Mexicans murdered or disappeared on his watch is “abrazos no balazos” — hugs not bullets.
The issue that dominates all others
“The Biden administration has concerns about Amlo and particularly in the area of democracy and democratic backsliding” but has chosen to mute its criticism because it needs Amlo to cooperate at the U.S.-Mexican border, said Diaz Briseno.
“So far, we’ve only seen very timid statements coming out from both the State Department and the White House. And this shows how solid Mexico’s role is as a migrant buffer state.”
In recent years, said Diaz Briseno, “migration has been the key factor that determines where the relationship is heading. And in that area, Mexico and Amlo have helped a lot both the Trump and the Biden administrations.”
Amlo and Biden have jointly maintained Donald Trump’s migrant protection protocols, which require refugee claimants to apply for U.S. asylum from the Mexican side of the border.
“The fact that Amlo is willing to turn Mexico into a buffer state to hold migrants there and prevent them from reaching the U.S. border makes him an invaluable asset,” Diaz Briseno told CBC News.
The race to be the chosen one
But the end of the Amlo era is now on the horizon. His term ends on October 1, 2024, and the jockeying within the ruling MORENA Party to become his successor is fierce.
Amlo’s chosen heir is Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. Until a few weeks ago, she was widely assumed to hold the inside track on becoming not only Mexico’s next president but also its first female, Jewish president.
The highly educated and urbane Sheinbaum, who is keen to inherit Amlo’s popularity with Mexico’s poorer voters, has been accused of mimicking his southern Mexican speech patterns at campaign events and of lacking any charisma of her own.
Her path to the leadership of the MORENA party, and therefore the presidency, no longer appears smooth. She has a serious competitor for her party’s nomination in Marcelo Ebrard, who was foreign minister until this April and who represented Mexico in the NAFTA renegotiation. Ebrard is well known in Ottawa.
Mexico’s election is ten months away, and under Mexican law there should be no open campaigning yet. But the National Institute of Elections — which once would have enforced that rule — has been weakened by Amlo and opted not to act, said Mexican political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor. MORENA has taken advantage to launch a primary campaign.
Candidates have been erecting billboards and posting videos of themselves serving tamales. Ebrard posted one showing him line dancing.
“Once the opposition realized the referee wasn’t going to referee, they launched their campaign too,” said Bravo Regidor. “So now we have the two main political blocks in Mexico campaigning outside the law, and this has generated a really tense atmosphere.”
What has shaken up the race the most is the sudden emergence of a viable opposition candidate: Xochitl Galvez.
Galvez’s indigenous background and humble origins — she grew up selling tamales with her mother — have made her a hard target for a president who often accuses political opponents of being upper-class “fifis.”
Instead, Amlo has used his morning presentations to accuse Galvez of corruption, saying he would show documentation to prove she milked the state for millions (he has not).
“All of the polling shows MORENA far in the lead in voter preferences,” said Bravo Regidor. “So it’s a bit strange to see them reacting so strongly to the opposition having a candidate. I think it’s because they just didn’t see it coming.
“There had been a resigned and even defeatist attitude among opposition voters because they hadn’t found a candidate who could excite and unite them. And the ruling party had come to think that this was going to be a stroll in the park. Then suddenly, the appearance of Xochitl Galvez changed all the coordinates.”
Amlo lashes out
Lopez Obrador holds a daily event called the mañanera that is part presentation (including graphics and video) and part news conference. He frequently uses the mañanera to attack political enemies, said Bravo Regidor.
“He’s gone after independent media who’ve published stories that were critical,” he said. “He’s denigrated journalists and analysts who’ve discussed topics that were adverse. He’s belittled the scientific community and civil society.”
Since the emergence of Galvez, the rhetoric in the mañaneras has become more extreme.
“All of this has created the sensation that she’s in danger. She has practically no security or bodyguards,” said Bravo Regidor. And Mexico has witnessed the assassination of a presidential candidate before.
When commentators suggested that Amlo was playing with fire, he used his mañanera to accuse twelve journalists and media organizations of being part of a “very perverse … very evil” conspiracy against him.
On Wednesday, one of Mexico’s best-known journalists recorded a video declaring that if anything happened to him, Amlo should be held responsible.
Mexico’s electoral authority ordered Amlo to stop using his government platform and resources to attack Galvez. He kept doing it anyway, referring to her as “Senora X.”
Galvez, who has turned out to be an effective campaigner, showed up for her next event in a Senora X outfit complete with shades and black jacket.
Now, allies of the president are trying a new approach: bringing criminal complaints against Galvez. Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have used that tactic to proscribe and even jail opposition candidates they saw as a challenge. Bravo Regidor said Amlo may not intend to go that far.
“Lopez Obrador is a very skilled politician, in the sense that he knows how to take things right to the limit,” he said. “He stretches the cord to the maximum but tries not to break it.
“He’s trying to build a case against her both in the court of public opinion and in the real tribunals, but it remains to be seen if he would dare to take the leap to actually have her banned.”
As Mexico lurches toward what promises to be a dramatic election year, its differences with its two free-trade partners are piling up.
More and more complaints are coming out of the U.S. Congress about Mexico’s democratic backsliding, its perceived inaction on fentanyl, its trade practices and fossil fuel-friendly energy policies (Amlo is not so much a climate change denier as a climate change ignorer).
Members of Congress also have criticized MORENA’s friendliness with Russia and hostility toward Ukraine, along with Amlo’s close ties to Russia’s authoritarian allies in Venezuela and Cuba.
Amlo’s government has argued that its position on Ukraine reflects Mexico’s tradition of diplomatic neutrality.
“That’s a load of poppycock, first of all, because Mexico has not been traditionally neutral,” said former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan.
“Remember that when Lopez Obrador was asked about the invasion and his position vis-a-vis Russia and the United States, he said, ‘Biden is my partner but Putin is my friend.'”
Sarukhan told CBC News he believes that Ebrard and Mexico’s professional foreign service have manoeuvred to prevent Amlo from more explicitly embracing the Russian side.
“You would have expected more pressure from the Biden administration pushing Mexico to be more vocal in support of Ukraine,” said Diaz Briseno, “and that’s not something that’s happened.
“The U.S. administration has parked those ancillary concerns to get Mexico to cooperate on the most important issue, which is migration, always.”
“The impression in Mexico is that Canada and the U.S. are trying to run out the clock,” said Bravo Regidor. “They know that Lopez Obrador is a president who picks fights, who likes conflict, who’s constantly looking for people to get into the ring with him, and I think both Canada and the U.S. have opted to be the adult in the room, not to respond to provocations, and simply wait for Amlo’s term to end.
“And at that point they will get more involved with the next president, who will surely be a weaker president than Lopez Obrador.”