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Tourism is thriving. The economy is improving. Seaside resorts are reviving. Quaint historic towns with archaeological riches are drawing international visitors, and Mexico is holding its rank as one of the top 10 world destinations, on pace to exceed 37 million international tourists in 2017.
But Mexico is not winning its decade-old war against the drug cartels and their multibillion-dollar industry. Although the government has captured or killed some of the cartel leaders, more violent factions have sprung up, dealing in extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking. Activists and reporters are killed, while corruption and impunity are pervasive.
In the past two years the rising level of violence across Mexico has overwhelmed the rule of law and security, with 2017 the worst year on record with 18,000 deaths.
“That’s our biggest problem, the collapse of the rule of law," acknowledged Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, Mexico’s Minister of Tourism, during an exclusive interview in New York City. As it looks at a new presidential election in July 2018, Mexico will have to work for the next 10 years, or longer, to re-establish the rule of law and security, he said. “It will take that long. That’s our biggest challenge.”
De la Madrid Cordero said what's needed is more cooperation and ties between his country and the United States - Mexico is the U.S.'s third largest trading partner - instead of the administration's overtures to end NAFTA and plans to build a wall.
De la Madrid Cordero rejects the view that Mexico is solely responsible for the drug cartels and narco trafficking. He agreed that the cartels are the main producers, buyers and traffickers in the hemisphere. But Americans are the principal consumers of illegal drugs – namely marijuana, cocaine and heroin, in that order.
“It’s a joint problem,” he said.
The global illegal drug industry rakes in an estimated $360 billion a year, $100 billion for heroin, $110 billion to $130 billion for cocaine, and $75 billion for marijuana. Mexico is the main supplier of marijuana to the United States. It is believed that half of the cartels’ revenues come from marijuana traffic.
De la Madrid Cordero reasons that legalizing marijuana on both sides of the border could lead to a reduction in the illicit trade. He mentioned Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014, is seeing declines in arrests and drug violence and enjoying tax windfalls off a drug that millions of Americans use (Colorado’s 2017 marijuana sales reached $1 billion in just eight months). But the black market hasn’t been entirely eliminated. Dealers continue to buy and sell, crossing state lines. Meanwhile, the Mexican cartels are reportedly shifting their production from marijuana to a more profitable drug, heroin.
The drug wars and narco violence on both sides of the border are crucial challenges for Mexico and the United States, but there is another major issue that is consuming both governments and threatening bilateral relations, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the complex trade accord involving the United States, Canada and Mexico.
From the start of his presidential campaign, in June 2015, the accord has been one of Donald Trump’s favorite targets. Claiming that NAFTA cheats the United States and has led to a loss of jobs and industry, Trump has promised to withdraw from the 1994 agreement unless provisions favoring the United States are implemented.
“It’s unfortunate to go against such an important accord that has been so good for the United States and Canada,” De la Madrid Cordero said, “and to do that just for political purposes.” Trump created a story about the United States losing jobs and getting a raw deal with NAFTA, the minister said.
“It’s a great story and to sell it he needed to create a villain, and he made Mexico the villain," said De la Madrid Cordero. "But some stories are lies, and this is one of them.”
The tourism minister faults the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States on the new economy. There are 6 million jobs unfilled in the United States today and they remain vacant, he said, because workers haven’t been trained to fill those jobs and they haven’t been trained in the new technology.
U.S. goods and services traded with Mexico totaled an estimated $579.7 billion in 2016. Exports were $260.0 billion; imports were $317.6 billion. The U.S. trade deficit with Mexico was $55.6 billion in 2016.
That trade deficit infuriates Trump. Formal negotiations have begun between the two governments and, according to De la Madrid Cordero, are scheduled to conclude in March 2018.
“It’d be a shame to end the treaty,” he said. “We want our ties to be closer, we want a partnership. It’s not politically smart to have a conflict with your neighbor. All of us want access to the U.S. market,’’ he said, referring to Mexico, Central America, and South America.
As to the border wall that President Trump has threatened to build, De la Madrid Cordero said, Washington is spending more money increasing patrols and security at the border than it would cost it to give development assistance to countries like Salvador and Honduras, countries sending an increasing number of immigrants crossing into the United States without legal status.
“It’s poor timing, this campaign to build the border wall,’’ the minister said. He mentioned surveys that show Mexican immigration declining in the past few years. Shaking his head, he said, “He wants to build it now that Mexicans are not coming.”
Then he quickly added with a smile, “We will never pay for that wall. Never.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 12, 3:15 p.m.):An earlier version of this article misstated the source of the comment that Mexico is not winning its battle against drug cartels. The observation was made by the author of the article, not Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, the minister of tourism.