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Biden, López Obrador send mixed messages at North American Leaders’ Summit

The heads of state presented new actions and a united front on supply chains and critical minerals, but their stances on issues like immigration and drug trafficking seemed to differ.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Although they touted common goals at the North American Leader’s Summit in Mexico City Tuesday, the presidents of Mexico and the United States revealed that their priorities are still not as aligned as their discourses try to make them appear.

“The reason this summit, this trilateral relationship, is so impactful is because we share a common vision for the future grounded on common values,” said President Joe Biden in his remarks after his meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

“There can no longer be any question, none, in today’s interconnected world, we cannot wall ourselves off from shared problems,” he said. “We are stronger and better when we work together, the three of us. And together, we have made enormous progress since our last summit.”

However, much of what was said in terms of immigration and drug trafficking did not differ from pledges made at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June and the U.S.–Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities from October 2021. 

“Our entire hemisphere is facing unprecedented levels of migration, greater than any time in history,” Biden said, reminding his audience of the “regional-wide approach to a regional-wide problem” that came out of the 2021 North American Leaders’ Summit.

Biden described his latest efforts to crack down on illegal border crossings as a “more streamlined” immigration system. Those actions include the continuation of the Trump-era public health policy known as Title 42 to expel tens of thousands of migrants to Mexico each month.

A White House fact sheet published ahead of the meeting also makes mention of a virtual platform “to give migrants streamlined access to legal pathways.”

Speaking after Biden and Trudeau, López Obrador revealed his administration’s perspective of important issues like immigration and public safety when he enigmatically said that “violence has diminished, migration is less, also frustration has been tempered and the flame of hope remains lit.”

Despite years of militarization in Mexico and López Obrador’s actions to deepen that trend, violence in the country remains at historic highs, as are migrant encounters at the U.S.–Mexico border, according to Customs and Border Patrol data

Both presidents spoke of treating the root causes of migration, however, the actions mentioned by López Obrador are not part of the collaborative effort to achieve that goal. 

The Mexican president touted social programs that have failed in Mexico as means for addressing the causes of migration. His tree planting program known as Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) has been shown to increase deforestation, as poor farmers have been observed clearing wild growth in order to have more land on which to plant and thus receive more government subsidies. 

Furthermore, this and the job placement program López Obrador said are being implemented in Central America are not part of the joint U.S–Mexico strategy in the region known as Sembrando Oportunidades (Sowing Opportunities), according to USAID, which is collaborating with Mexico’s international development agency to execute it.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador greets U.S. President Joe Biden upon arrival in Mexico City on Sunday, Jan 8, 2023, ahead of the 2023 North American Leaders' Summit. (Twitter via Courthouse News)

“The U.S. Government will not implement the Government of Mexico’s projects … or monitor them,” the agency said in a statement to Courthouse News. “USAID will continue to monitor and evaluate its own projects and activities according to our current policy.”

Neither head of state presented new efforts to combat drug trafficking from Mexico. Both reiterated their commitments to going after the precursor chemicals used to make the deadly drug fentanyl, which they made in the Bicentennial Framework in October 2021. 

The framework also includes the curbing of the illicit firearms trade to Mexico from the U.S. as a critical pillar of the bilateral security strategy. The White House fact sheet mentions “strategies to combat arms and drug trafficking,” but Biden did not broach the subject Tuesday, despite mentioning other framework commitments.

“That has to be part of the solution,” said former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, adding that authorities must also go after the cartels’ cash flows. “That’s related, because they pay money for the guns. You gotta have progress on both of those fronts as part of the enforcement. There’s an important part of the enforcement agenda that’s in the United States.”

The Bicentennial Framework replaced the failed Merida Initiative, the previous security strategy that focused on taking out drug kingpins that failed to reduce both drug trafficking and violence in Mexico. 

Despite this commitment, drug trafficking enforcement appears to have remained more or less the same, as exemplified by the recent arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, and the eruption of violence it caused.

Former DEA chief of international operations Mike Vigil called Guzmán’s arrest a “significant victory to justice,” but said “it’s not going to have an impact on the functioning of the Sinaloa Cartel because the infrastructure is still intact.”

Vigil said that López Obrador’s unwillingness to work with U.S. drug enforcement authorities is one thing that needs to change in order to increase the effectiveness of bilateral security efforts. U.S. immigration policy is another.

“A good immigration policy would alleviate a lot of issues for these poor immigrants and remove some of the revenue from the cartels,” he said.

One area in which the countries did reveal progress was the strengthening of supply chains between Mexico, the United States and Canada and expanding critical minerals resource mapping in the three countries. López Obrador announced the creation of a joint committee meant to address the issue.

“We agreed to strengthen our economic and trade relationships, for which we will create a joint committee dedicated to the planning and the substitution of imports in North America, to ensure that more and more we’re self-sufficient, as well as to make reality the development and cooperation and wellbeing of all the countries on our continent,” he said.

Former Ambassador Wayne hailed this initiative as a positive outcome of the summit, but added that the long time frame for such a project could stifle its implementation if the governments are not prepared to be in it for the long haul.

“Those are the kind of things that over time, over a number of years, can make the continent a lot stronger,” he said. “They’re not sexy, but they’re going to be very important for building up the strength of North America’s ability to produce and to compete.”

He also hailed the proposed initiatives on expanding semiconductor production in North America and the expansion of electric vehicle charging stations along the border.

As with any multilateral summit, however, the proof is in the pudding.

“They said a lot of good things, there are some interesting commitments here, but now we have to see those commitments turn into concrete results on the ground,” Wayne said. “And it has to be clear that people are going to be tasked with working on this stuff not just until two months before the next summit, but throughout the year, and making sure that there is progress going forward.”

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