Three things to keep in mind about the US-Mexico relationship

In 2009, when Mexico’s middle class continued its steady expansion in the wake of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and wealthy neighborhoods bloomed in many cities, it was a popular trope in Washington, D.C., circles — far away from the culturally rich border region so many San Diegans, Tijuaneses and others know and love — that our southern neighbor was at risk of becoming a “failed state.” Since then, Mexico’s economy has become the 15th-largest in the world and is on track to be the seventh-largest in 2050 — ahead of such powerhouses as Japan and Germany. This growth isn’t just fueled by energy, manufacturing and tourism. A recent KPBS report detailed the boom of high-tech companies in Tijuana.

Yet to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Mexico is still a nation run by “narco-terrorists” so dangerous that the U.S. should consider a military intervention, as he said in March. And Rolling Stone recently reported that former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump might pursue “battle plans” to “attack Mexico” if he were elected in 2024. This is absurd. The rhetoric itself is dangerous. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, and its successor — the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which took effect in 2020 — made the three nations partners in a deep and profound sense. It is essential that a more nuanced understanding of Mexico emerges in the U.S.


This understanding should include an acknowledgment of the entrenched power of criminal drug cartels that are responsible for many of the more than 360,000 homicides — including of politicians, students, journalists and police officers — seen since 2006, when the government launched its most sustained crackdown. Cartel-related corruption and violence are major problems in Mexico. But this observation must be paired with two others.

The first is familiar: If Americans didn’t have such huge appetites for opioids, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other illicit narcotics, the cartels would be a fraction of their current size. “It’s not the ‘Mexican drug problem.’ It’s the American drug problem,” San Diego County novelist Don Winslow wrote to the White House and Congress in 2015. “It’s simple: no buyer, no seller.”

The second is less appreciated: With the presidential election of Vicente Fox of PAN (the National Action Party) in 2000 — after 71 years of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — Mexico accomplished “the rare feat of ending an authoritarian regime by voting it out of office,” in the words of Mexico scholar Joseph L. Klesner.

The achievement may be threatened by the February passage of “election reforms” at the behest of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, that would cut the budget of and lead to job losses and office closures at the National Electoral Institute, which has helped move Mexico to multi-party democracy. Critics say the changes undermine democratic norms only a generation after the end of Mexico’s single-party government.

Americans should closely watch this threat and Mexico’s economy, not the cartoons Graham and Trump are drawing. A second six-year term for AMLO, elected in 2018, would be unconstitutional under Mexican law, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s 2024 reelection isn’t assured. But the two must keep improving their relationship even if it may end next year. The nations’ partnership starts with theirs.

— The San Diego Union-Tribune

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