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MEXICO: Calibrating the Trump effect

Following the Super Tuesday primaries Donald Trump remains the frontrunner to win the Republican presidential nomination in the US. Nomination is not yet a sure thing. If successful the property tycoon-turned-politician will need to go on to confront a Democratic party opponent, most likely to be Hillary Clinton. Victory over Clinton is also far from assured. But a candidate notorious for his anti-Mexico views has now gone far enough and fast enough in the race to be considered a serious contender for the US presidency. That means Mexican political leaders are starting to imagine what a Trump presidency might be like.

Trump’s views on Mexico have – as he intended – received headline coverage. A brief summary: if elected Trump intends to build a gigantic wall (which appears to get higher every time he mentions it) along the frontier to keep Mexican immigrants out. Mexico is to be forced to foot the cost of the wall, for which various numbers have been mentioned (the latest Trump estimate is US$8bn). In Trump’s view Mexicans entering the US include “rapists”, murderers and drug runners. A Trump government will deport all Mexicans illegally in the US back to Mexico – an operation that could involve up to 11m people.

Opinion remains divided between those who believe Trump should be interpreted literally, and those who see his statements (such as the claim that all Muslims should be denied entry to the US) as more of a deliberately provocative and figurative appeal to a disgruntled middle America, deeply worried by immigration, crime, and terrorism, and eager to be offered simple solutions restoring the country’s perceived loss of global power and status.

Mexican reaction

Mexican responses to Trump appear to have evolved through various stages. An initial response was to condemn Trump’s ideas but to treat him as something of a clown. Various Mexican leaders attempted to ignore him entirely. That began to change as the ‘Trump factor’ showed itself to be resilient and to reflect a not insignificant cross-section of the US electorate. One sign of this was that the proposal to build a wall, along with other hard-line anti-immigrant positions have been adopted, with different variants, by Trump’s Republican rivals. He has framed the debate to his advantage.

Another sign of the real impact of Trump’s rhetoric has come from indications that after slowing over recent years, the flow of immigrants into the US has increased again (see sidebar), with many reasoning that the time to get in is now, ahead of whatever tougher regulations are introduced after a new occupant enters the White House in January 2017. There are reports that people traffickers are encouraging this notion as a way of boosting demand for their services.

While former Mexican presidents have compared Trump to Hitler (see sidebar), Mexican government officials have tried to keep out of the war of words, until now. This week Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu said the wall plan was impossible, as well as “impractical, inefficient, wrong and frankly…not an intelligent thing to do”. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s chief of staff, Francisco Guzmán, has said the government will use its consulates across the US to publicise the positive aspects of the two countries’ relationship. Peña Nieto, Guzmán added, believes any leader elected to the US presidency would end up taking a softer and more pragmatic line once in office.

Trump wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), slapping higher tariffs on Mexican products. Opponents of Trump point out that bilateral trade has quintupled to US$530bn since Nafta was signed in 1994 and now arguably supports significant job creation in the US as well as in Mexico. Guzmán noted, “It would be difficult to reverse 20 years of integration”.

A number of security experts believe that the “Trump wall” – as described by its main proponent – will never be built. They argue that the cost and technical challenges are prohibitive and that there are legal complications over ownership, right-of-way conflicts, eminent domain disputes, and environmental regulations. But it is feasible that a future US administration would further strengthen and tighten border patrol and deploy advanced technology, including drones and other devices, to make illegal entry significantly more difficult. Mass deportations in the other direction are also possible.

As the process would most probably be accompanied by a sharp cooling in bilateral relations, it is likely that it could be poorly managed and would have serious unintended consequences. One is that a less porous border with fewer illegal drug trafficking routes might intensify the struggle to control those routes between the drug trafficking organisations (DTOs). If Mexican criminals are deported from US prisons and simply dumped on the Mexican side of the border that too is going to increase, not reduce border tensions. US-Mexican security cooperation would most likely decrease sharply and the Mérida initiative – a part US-funded joint security programme – might not survive. Poor security cooperation between the two countries might be seen as a great opportunity by the ever-resourceful DTOs.

  • Illegal immigration

According to US border patrol statistics a total of 150,304 immigrants were arrested when trying to enter the US illegally between October 2015 and February 2016, a 24% increase on the same year-earlier period.

  • Mexican presidents on Trump

President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) said he would not “pay for that f****** wall”, adding of Donald Trump that “He reminds me of Hitler…he’s going to use the executive power to do what he’d like”. Another former Mexican President, Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), pointed out that Trump is himself the son of immigrants but “is talking about immigrants who have a different skin colour to him. Frankly it’s racist and exploits sensitivities, rather like Hitler did in his day.”

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