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Amidst Crises at Home, Mexico Should Deepen Cooperation with the United States

Christopher Wilson

As Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto prepare to meet tomorrow in Washington, DC, Senior Associate Christopher Wilson discusses three main issues that should be on the agenda.

Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto arrives in Washington today looking for a boost in the midst of the toughest months of his presidency. To make the visit a successful one, President Peña ought to support undocumented Mexican citizens in the United States that are eligible to apply for deferred action through President Obama's recent executive action on immigration, redouble U.S.-Mexico cooperation to strengthen Mexico's law enforcement institutions, and continue to push for increased U.S.-Mexican cooperation on issues related to trade and manufacturing. Without tangible outcomes on these important issues, the visit could look like more of a distraction from Mexico's troubles than part of a solution to them.

After successfully navigating a divided congress and passing an ambitious set of economic reforms, in 2013, the future looked bright. Though economic growth was slow through the first half of 2014, the passage of implementing legislation following the constitutional changes to allow for the opening of Mexico's energy sector kept investor interest in Mexico high.

But by this past September, things started to unravel at an astonishing pace. First, on September 26, 43 students went missing in the southwestern state of Guerrero. With the nation and world watching, a picture slowly emerged of deeply corrupt local officials capturing the students in order to avoid a planned protest only to then hand them over to the local organized crime syndicate who gunned the students down and burned their bodies at a nearby trash dump. With innocent victims and a guilty state, trust in the ability of the government to address persistent issues of violence and corruption was extremely low. Occasionally violent protests emerged all over Mexico and continue to this day. In fact, a group of protesters is expected tomorrow in front of the White House.

Only a few weeks after the disappearance of the students, a Mexican radio station discovered part of a construction consortium that had received multi-billion dollar government contracts was in the process of building a multi-million dollar mansion for the President's family on credit. Later, it emerged that the same company had built a vacation home for Mexico's Finance Minister. Though wrongdoing has yet to be proven in either case, the scandal damaged trust in the president and his party, and President Peña's approval rating is currently the lowest any Mexican president has had since the mid-Nineties when the economy crashed, according to a recent poll.

To top it all off, the energy reform that was driving such optimism in the Mexican economy has suddenly lost some of its luster due to falling oil prices. In the long term, it will still pay dividends, but oil sales will provide less of a boost to the economy and the government’s pocketbook until prices recover. The central bank recently lowered its growth projections for 2015 to between three and four percent.

For the trek to Washington to be worthwhile and well-received at home, it will have to produce results. Three major issues are ripe for action.

First, President Peña should announce actions to be taken by its extensive network of consulates throughout the United States to support Mexican citizens that are eligible for relief under President Obama's new executive action to defer deportation and offer work authorization but are missing key documents, such as birth certificates, required in the application process.

Second, bilateral cooperation on public security could be significantly enhanced. Under previous administrations, the United States and Mexico articulated the concept of shared responsibility, in which both countries seek to jointly and cooperatively address the consequences of transnational organized crime and drug trafficking, admitting that both Mexican supply and U.S. demand have fueled violence in the region. The cooperative spirit begot the Merida Initiative, which was initially focused on increased law enforcement cooperation and the transfer of hardware, such as helicopters, to Mexico's police and military. During Obama's first term, the program evolved to emphasize the strengthening of Mexico's police and courts. Recent events in Mexico suggest much more can be done in this vein. President Peña was elected on a platform of crime prevention, but strangely, even as important intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation continue, little has been done to update the Merida Initiative in a way that increases its focus on crime prevention in Mexico and demand reduction in the United States. Presidents Peña and Obama should begin to articulate the next stage of bilateral security cooperation.

Finally, economic cooperation must continue and be strengthened. In 2013, the two countries launched the High-Level Economic Dialogue, which brings together several cabinet-level officials from both countries to improve the already strong economic ties between the United States and Mexico. Finding ways to make trade across the U.S.-Mexico border more efficient (while keeping security standards high) should be at the top of the agenda, along with the creation of a joint strategy to finish the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations that would open new markets for U.S. and Mexican products while also updating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is now over twenty years old and in need of some upgrades.

With a shared border, close cultural ties, and over a half-trillion dollars in annual trade, the United States and Mexico have an incredibly important and deep relationship. Despite the crises in Mexico right now, it would be a mistake for either country to back away from the relationship.

Christopher Wilson is the Senior Associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He directs the Institutes work on U.S.-Mexico economic relations and border affairs.

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Christopher Wilson

Christopher Wilson

Deputy Director, Mexico Institute
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more