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Harris signals a potential breakthrough in US-Mexico cooperation

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Largely unnoticed following her June 6 visit to Mexico City, Vice President Harris announced a promising new action agenda of US-Mexico bilateral cooperation. It sets the stage for deeper collaboration on key issues from migration to economics to public security. That agenda needs to be filled out and implemented in the months ahead, but the commitments may well signal a phase of better cooperation between these two highly connected neighbors.  

As flagged during the vice president’s visit, this week the U.S. sent to Mexico more than 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, making the United States Mexico’s largest vaccine donor. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas held talks in Mexico City on border management and migration, and Mexico’s finance minister traveled to Washington.

For the United States and Mexico, no other nation in the world has the same impact on the daily lives of their citizens through cross-border flows of people, goods and money — licit and illicit — and the cultural and family ties that link these neighbors.

U.S.-Mexico cooperation was mixed during the Trump administration. The two countries, along with Canada, successfully completed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade, despite frequent threats and actual sanctions by Washington. The Trump administration’s focus on enforcement to deal with Central American migration and its threats of more tariffs on Mexican exports produced cooperation to slow the flow of migrants, but it fueled resentment, mistreatment of migrants, and did not reduce the pressures for migrants to head northward. 

With increasing flows of deadly drugs from Mexico and near-record homicides in Mexico, public security cooperation seriously deteriorated during the Trump years. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, was hesitant to collaborate too closely with the U.S. and resisted efforts to update the bilateral Merida security cooperation program. Former President Trump threatened new sanctions in 2019 when U.S. women and children were killed by criminals in Northern Mexico, and in late 2020 AMLO’s administration passed a new law severely limiting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) law enforcement cooperation after the U.S. arrested a former Mexican defense minister on drug-trafficking charges. 

President Biden signaled his hope early on for a better relationship with Mexico, reflecting his deep investment in relations as vice president. He met with AMLO in March. The commitment to increase bilateral cooperation during Harris’s visit addresses key areas needing improvement.

On public security, the two governments have agreed to hold a Cabinet-level dialogue to discuss a shared vision for security. This would be a good start toward revitalizing the cooperation necessary to tackle the massive trade of lethal drugs heading north and billions of dollars in drug proceeds and illegal arms heading south. Organized crime also likely influenced June election outcomes in some areas of Mexico. Both countries need sustained dialogue and effective cooperative mechanisms that can overcome the legacy of mistrust and criminally funded corruption in order to disrupt criminal business chains more effectively. A ministerial level dialogue could address U.S. programs to reduce the voracious demand for the drugs. The U.S. pledged additional support to help Mexico resolve tens of thousands of cases of missing and disappeared individuals lost during the violence of the past 15 years. 

On economics and trade-related issues, the announcement sets September for the first meeting of the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) since the Obama administration. Biden won AMLO’s agreement to reestablish the group when they met. The HLED brings together an array of ministers to help address economic issues that don’t easily fit into purely trade discussions, including strengthening and modernizing cross-border management. The HLED was considered to be effective before the Trump administration ended it.

On Mexico’s labor reform, the U.S. announced that it would “invest” an additional $130 million in technical assistance over the next three years to support Mexico’s implementation of ambitious reforms aimed at strengthening labor rights and democracy. While AMLO initiated these reforms before the USMCA, these are priority issues for U.S. unions and Democrats in Congress who pressed to amend the USMCA to include a new, rapid-action dispute settlement mechanism to address violations of labor rights in Mexico. The U.S. has filed two complaints under the USMCA that focus on cases where democratic union processes are reportedly being blocked. The AMLO administration will continue to face serious challenges in its efforts to implement labor reforms over the next three years and can well use this additional technical assistance. 

On migration, the governments agreed to establish a “strategic partnership” to address the lack of economic opportunities in northern Central America. They also agreed that their law enforcement agencies will work together on disabling human trafficking and human smuggling organizations. These agreements are far from enough to reduce the flows of Central American migrants heading toward the United States or the structural problems in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but they represent deepening cooperation with Mexico that is essential for effectively dealing with the migration challenges. In addition, the U.S. promised to put together a package of grants, loans and other commitments to generate economic growth in southern Mexico. This reflects AMLO’s hope to spur growth in the poorest parts of Mexico. A similar proposal for cooperation that AMLO made to Trump did not bear much fruit. 

There is much more on the U.S.-Mexico agenda that will need to be addressed, given the breadth, complexity and intensity of bilateral relations. Some of the remaining big issues will be handled within the framework of the USMCA, including complaints from U.S. companies that billions of dollars invested in Mexico’s energy sector are being undermined by AMLO’s energy policies. However, the action agenda approved during Harris’s visit to Mexico will encourage both governments to engage regularly on solving problems and developing opportunities that benefit both countries.  

These efforts can help rebuild the trust between the U.S. and Mexico that was badly undermined in recent years. There is much work ahead to be able to achieve good results, and the vice president and others will need to monitor progress. Yet, this kind of regularized institutional collaboration among U.S. and Mexican officials has characterized the best periods of U.S.-Mexico relations.

Former ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Andrés Manuel López Obrador Donald Trump Joe Biden Mexico United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement US-Mexico relations

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