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Guns, drugs and migrants: Biden heads to Mexico to face diplomatic challenges with North American allies

Trump rose to power in part by assailing America's neighbors, and his departure was greeted with glee. But now Biden has his own woes.
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MEXICO CITY — When North American leaders gathered in 2021 — at the first summit for the group in five years — the mood was upbeat. Gone was former President Donald Trump, who came to power demonizing Mexican migrants and who once called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

But as President Joe Biden takes part Monday in what’s informally known as the “Three Amigos” summit, the camaraderie has begun to fade, and the post-Trump honeymoon appears to have ended.

Differences over trade practices and crime have grown steadily more pronounced. In two days of closed-door meetings, the leaders are expected to hash out grievances while searching for a consensus on reducing the continent’s dependence on China for crucial goods and supplies. 

“Last year, the agenda was a celebration of the fact that the so-called ‘Three Amigos’ summit was coming back after a hiatus under the Trump administration,” said Ryan Berg, the director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now, there are a lot of tensions to unpack. It’s going to be less of a feel-good summit than last year’s, particularly because trade tensions have arisen and are very serious. They will be the elephant in the room for a lot of the discussions in Mexico City.”

The Biden administration is pressing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to crack down on drug cartels that have deluged the U.S. with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that killed an estimated 72,000 people in America in 2021. Mexico is grappling with a surge in gun-related homicides and wants the U.S. to stop smugglers from sending illegal weapons into the country.

Looming over the summit is a worsening migration problem. Before he arrived in Mexico City on Sunday night, Biden stopped in El Paso, Texas, amid criticism from congressional Republicans that the southwest border has gotten more porous on his watch. Last week, Biden rolled out new immigration enforcement policies that include sending back 30,000 people a month who crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, having come from places like Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti.

Navigating the summit will require special diplomatic finesse, given the interlocking needs of the three countries and the domestic political pressures each leader faces.

With the 2024 presidential election approaching, Biden has been hammering a “Buy America” message. Touting a bridge project near Cincinnati last week, he said, “I don’t sign anything that the Congress passes unless it’s buying of something American.”

Various foreign leaders warn that Biden’s stance amounts to a form of protectionism that harms trade partners. More integration among the North American economies could provide a bulwark against Chinese economic power and help bring jobs back to the continent, analysts say.

Under Biden, there has been “a doubling down of this ‘Buy America’ approach,” said Louise Blais, a former Canadian diplomat. “All of these things that seem to target China, however, do have collateral damage on Canada and the Mexican economy.

“I’m expecting both the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister to raise this issue with the president — to say, ‘Look, we need to have a more continental approach to some of these policies.’”

Since the Trump administration replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement with a new trade pact, the three countries have opened a total of 17 trade disputes with one another, according to a briefing paper from the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The U.S. has filed nine against Mexico and two against Canada.

Corn is one example of the complexities and tradeoffs involved. Citing health concerns, López Obrador has called for banning imports of genetically modified corn. Tens of thousands of U.S. jobs depend on exports of yellow corn to Mexico. In November, the Biden administration threatened to file a formal trade complaint if Mexico follows through.

Pushing López Obrador to buy more corn, however, could alienate him at a moment when Mexico is agreeing to accept the return of 30,000 people a month from the U.S.

“There’s a dire reality,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. “Municipalities on the Mexican side of the border don’t have the resources to take in 30,000 migrants expelled from the U.S. on a monthly basis. You’re already seeing strained capabilities. These migrants immediately become prey to organized crime.

“López Obrador feels that if he gives in to the U.S. request on migration, he has greater leverage to ask Biden not to ‘meddle’ in what López Obrador sees as purely the domestic affairs of Mexico and Mexicans,” Sarukhan added.

Ahead of the summit, the leaders sought to ease some of the strains and perhaps create a more convivial atmosphere. One concern of U.S. authorities has been López Obrador’s level of commitment to defeating the drug cartels. A motto of his is "hugs, not bullets."

To the relief of U.S. officials, last week Mexico arrested Ovidio Guzmán, son of the notorious imprisoned drug cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for the arrest of the younger Guzmán, who is alleged to be part of a cartel that is moving fentanyl and other drugs across the border. 

That the arrest happened on the eve of the summit seems hardly coincidental, analysts said. Observers have privately joked that scheduling more summits might be an effective way to dismantle more cartels.

“It’s interesting how they find these people mere days before a big summit, but they can’t seem to find them at other moments,” Berg said.

Biden made a diplomatic gesture of his own. Rather than fly into the more conveniently located Mexico City hub airport, Air Force One landed Sunday at a new airport that was a pet project of López Obrador’s.

Choosing that airport, about 30 miles from the city center, “shows how important that relationship is,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing. When a reporter mentioned that the Mexican government was pleased that Biden will arrive at the new airport, she said, to laughter: “Really?”