Rubio: 'I hope' Mexican elections won't end partnership against cartels

Rubio: 'I hope' Mexican elections won't end partnership against cartels
© Greg Nash

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump wants schools to reopen, challenged on 'harmless' COVID-19 remark MORE (R-Fla.) said Mexico is a "willing partner" of the United States in the fight against transnational criminal organizations; something he hopes won't change after next year's presidential elections there.

"It's not Venezuela and it's not Cuba," Rubio told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday. 

"They're going to have a free and fair election and they're going to decide new leadership and that'll have to be debated," he said.

Mexico will vote in July 2018 for a new president and Congress, amid a national debate on how to manage its relationship with the Trump administration.

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While most Mexican politicians favor continued cooperation with the United States on trade and security, there are signs that anti-American rhetoric could yield favorable electoral results.

Cooperation between Mexico and the United States on security and criminal matters has steadily grown since 2006, when the Mexican government began using the military to combat drug cartels.

That's led to deep and interdependent relationships between U.S. and Mexican federal law enforcement agencies and high-level information sharing that many experts say is critical to the fight against organized crime.

But the relationship was shaken by the election of President Trump, whose rhetoric and proposal to build a border wall made him extremely unpopular with Mexican voters.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a firebrand leftist who's been the target of multiple comparisons to Latin American autocrats like Hugo Chavez, has taken a hard line against the Trump administration, filing a complaint against its immigration policies with the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in March.

Lopez Obrador, who shuns the comparisons to Chavez, is far ahead in most polls as other parties have struggled to find strong presidential candidates.

The Mexican government has toed a fine line between criticism of Trump and collaboration with the U.S. government, with a focus on upcoming negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

President Enrique Peña Nieto's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has yet to name a candidate. Whoever eventually gets that nomination will face an uphill battle running under the deeply unpopular PRI banner.

NAFTA was originally negotiated and signed under the PRI, and Peña Nieto's party has followed through on his predecessor's policies of close security cooperation with the United States.

Other opposition parties are in disarray, as internal bickering has split apart the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Both those parties announced last week they were open to forming an opposition alliance to remove the PRI from power.

Lopez Obrador said Sunday he wouldn't consider an alliance with those parties because they are "responsible for the national tragedy in Mexico."

The Mexican military was called into service against the cartels under a PAN government, and the party is a strong supporter of free trade. 

Mexican law was recently reformed to allow independent candidates, but few believe independents will be able to overcome a lack of public funding and other structural barriers.

Most Mexican parties support NAFTA and continued collaboration on security issues with the United States. 

Lopez Obrador, who has historically taken a hard line against deepening relations with the United States, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in May, "when we work together, everyone wins. But in confrontation, the United States and Mexico will both lose."

Still, Trump's rhetoric on Mexico has made politicians question whether they can trust the U.S. government.

"Unfortunately, we have now this president who doesn't understand how important my country is. Me, as a senator, and some other Mexicans need to stand up. That's what I've been trying to do," Sen. Armando Rios Piter, an independent presidential candidate, told NPR in April.

And rising levels of violence related to the drug trade are shaking voters' confidence in the benefits of U.S. aid on security and rule of law. 

Denise Dresser, a political commentator who studies democracy and the rule of law in Mexico, wrote Monday that calls to abandon the new criminal justice system -- partially funded by the United States -- amount to "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Rubio said the degree of bilateral collaboration under the next Mexican government "is for the Mexican people to decide."

Asked whether he thought the upcoming election put the partnership at risk, Rubio said, "I hope not."

"Our hope is that we'll be prepared to work with whoever wins, and should be, because that's an important relationship," he added.