By MARK STEVENSON , Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican officials are hoping for a bit more calm, less vitriol and more constructive talk with the U.S. this week when the secretaries of state and homeland security arrive after months in which U.S. President Donald Trump has hammered Mexico.
Rex Tillerson and John Kelly are widely seen as less combative than their boss. But many Mexicans are starting to question the point of even talking to a U.S. government that has promised repeatedly to hit Mexico with tariffs, border walls and deportations.
Kelly is starting his visit Tuesday in neighboring Guatemala, which also has a large immigrant population in the United Sates, also serves as a conduit for northbound drugs and also depends on the U.S. for anti-crime assistance.
Kelly will offer Guatemala little reassurance on deportations: He will visit a repatriation center where deported migrants are processed when they return on flights from the United States.
But it is Mexico that has to most to hope for — or lose— from the talks.
Mexico is entering a phase in which, at Trump's insistence, it will have to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. That could imperil the export manufacturing sector that has become crucial to Mexico's economy since NAFTA took effect in 1994. But it also could let Mexicans discuss restrictions on billions of dollars in American farm exports, as well as measures to ensure to U.S. oil and gas, a topic that was kept out of the original trade pact when Mexico jealously guarded its oil.
Mexico now imports huge amounts of gas and gasoline and officials now hope they can get the energy sector written into NAFTA. Tillerson, as the former head of ExxonMobil, may be just the person to do it.
"Tillerson, in his favor, would welcome what the Mexicans have been arguing have been arguing for, which is modernization or updating of the treaty including the energy sector," said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "Given his Exxon past, that would make sense that he would see the virtue in that."
Tillerson, who arrives Thursday, made friendly noises during his confirmation hearings, saying "Mexico is a longstanding neighbor and friend of this country."
Kelly, too, has sounded cooperative. After meeting with Mexican officials recently, Kelly he said his department is committed to work with Mexico on "common economic and security opportunities and challenges, such as border security, migration management, repatriation and cross-border trade."
Still, there are reports that the Trump administration might help finance a border wall by stripping away funds it gives Mexico under the Merida Initiative, a pact signed with then-President George W. Bush aimed at attacking drug trafficking and other security threats within Mexico. But that money — about $2.5 billion overall since 2008 — would pay for a small fraction of any wall and could hurt America's own security.
"This is really stupid on the US part," Estevez said. "My understanding is that most of the money effectively went to securing our southern border against Central Americans at US request."
Since 2014, Mexico has stepped up enforcement on its southern border to stem the flood of Central American migrants who have streamed through Mexico to get to the United States even as Mexican migration northward has stalled.
A policy memo published Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security indicated U.S. authorities now want to send some of those Central Americans back to Mexico instead of their home countries even while they wait for their asylum or deportation proceedings to finish in the U.S.
Many Mexicans question how much their President Enrique Pena Nieto can hope for from any talks with the Trump administration, which has campaigned to remove jobs from Mexico, kick out Mexican migrants and build an inhospitable wall between the two countries.
"Instead of welcoming Tillerson and Kelly next week as if nothing had happened, the Pena administration should say that there is no basis to negotiate on any topic at all, until the executive order to build this absurd and offensive wall is withdrawn, and our countrymen are no longer criminalized or prosecuted," columnist Carmen Aristegui wrote in the newspaper Reforma.
"This isn't about breaking off relations or anything like that, with a country with who we share so much interdependence, but rather with setting out new rules with intelligence, imagination and dignity," she added
Even former president Ernesto Zedillo thinks "the time has come to admit that the actions of the new administration have closed off, at least for the foreseeable future, the possibility of any agreement being achieved through dialogue and negotiation that could satisfy the interests of both parties."
"The effort to accommodate President Trump's capricious wishes has proven worthless and should not be continued," Zedillo wrote in an editorial in The Washington Post. "It is not useful for Mexico or the United States."
Rather, Zedillo wrote, Mexico should explore other trade relations with other countries — a longstanding but frustrated dream of Mexican policymakers whose economy is now based on proximity to the United States.
Many Mexicans are calling for a more confrontational attitude.
"The Mexican side has let too many gestures of hostility go by without, to this point, presenting a diplomatic note of protest, without suspending bilateral contacts or without having taking complaints to international tribunals," the leftist newspaper La Jornada wrote in an editorial.