HOUSTON (CN) — Donald Trump's departure offers the U.S. and Mexico a chance to reboot their diplomatic relations, yet American concerns about corruption in Mexico has emerged as a stumbling block to solidarity.
Mexico played a key role in Trump's focus on stemming the flow of Central American immigrants to the Southwest border.
With Trump threatening to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican imports if the country did not crack down on immigrants, Mexico deployed its national guard to its southern border to detain people entering from Guatemala, and agreed to take in asylum seekers turned away from the United States under the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as its "Remain In Mexico" program.
Mexico acceded to Trump's demands despite its own goals for cutting down on immigration by taking on its root causes.
Shortly after taking office in December 2018, López Obrador said Mexico would spend $30 billion over five years to curb immigration from Central America in what he called a new Marshall Plan, referring to the U.S. program that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
The strategy is familiar to Biden. As Barack Obama's vice president, he helped push a $750 million aid package for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through Congress in 2015. And he has pledged to get the aid flowing again after the Trump administration froze it.
Obrador started out on the wrong foot with Biden when he declined to congratulate him on winning the presidential election until Dec. 15 after counting of states' Electoral College votes confirmed his victory, according to Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States.
Sarukhan spoke on a panel of experts Thursday in a discussion titled "A New Chapter In the U.S.-Mexico Relationship: What To Expect In 2021–2025" held by Rice University's Baker Institute of Public Policy.
Lopez Obrador won over voters on his way to the presidency by promising to crack down on government corruption in a country where officials are routinely outed as being in the pocket of drug cartels.
But his commitment to those reforms was called into question when Mexico's National Prosecutor's Office announced Jan. 14 it would bring no charges against the country's former defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.
U.S. federal agents arrested Cienfuegos last October at Los Angeles International Airport on drug trafficking and money laundering charges arising from a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the general's ties to a Mexican drug cartel.
But after López Obrador accused the DEA of fabricating the charges and his administration blasted U.S. authorities for not telling them about the investigation before Cienfuegos' arrest and threatened to restrict the DEA's operations in Mexico, the Justice Department dropped the charges and Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico.
"This is truly extraordinary," Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international organized crime at the Brookings Institution said Thursday on the Rice University panel. "The DOJ is not in the habit of dropping charges against very high indicted officials or people suspected of playing very fundamental roles in organized crime on the basis of pressure from outside."
The Mexican government further frayed bilateral relations when it publicly released the DEA's case file on Cienfuegos. The Justice Department said the release of confidential info had violated the U.S.-Mexico Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance.
The case also led Mexican lawmakers, with the support of López Obrador, to pass a bill last month requiring foreign agents to share info on their investigations with the Mexican government, legislation clearly aimed at DEA agents.
Mexico’s actions have put the state of its cooperation with the U.S. on security issues “in a deep freeze,” Felbab-Brown said.