In the first visit to Mexico by an American leader in nearly a decade, President Biden met with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday to discuss trade, the drug war and record levels of illegal immigration in a wide-ranging conversation that was mostly cordial. But at some point it turned tense as the Mexican leader demanded that his American counterpart do more to help the region.
“They end with this oblivion, this abandonment, this disdain for Latin America and the Caribbean,” López Obrador told Biden in a meeting at the National Palace in Mexico City. López Obrador said Biden was uniquely positioned to improve lives across the region, which is plagued by inequality, telling him that “you hold the key in your hand.”
Biden responded by saying that the United States has invested “tens of billions of dollars” in Latin America in the past 15 years, while also donating more than any other country globally to causes around the world.
Biden has said clearly that America’s “responsibility” extends far beyond the Western Hemisphere.
The acrimonious exchange, as television cameras panned out, captured some of the daunting challenges facing the two countries at what Biden referred to as an “inflection point” that would “define the world” in the decades to come.
The two countries are under pressure to work together on issues including drug trafficking and immigration despite their sometimes starkly different views on these and other topics, including foreign policy, energy and climate change.
On Tuesday, Biden and the leftist Mexican leader will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bringing together the leaders of the three countries that account for about a third of global economic output.
It is the second so-called Three Amigos summit, as the trilateral meetings are informally known, to take place after a hiatus of several years during the presidency of Donald Trump, who eschewed many diplomatic traditions.
Trump never came to Mexico while in office, though he did develop a cordial relationship with its leader, despite López Obrador’s leftist ancestry and Trump’s frequent rhetorical accusations aimed at Mexico and Mexican immigrants.
López Obrador’s relationship with Biden has been cooler. He waited more than a month to congratulate Biden on his victory over Trump in the 2020 election, and last year he boycotted a major regional summit in Los Angeles because Biden did not invite authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Despite the tensions that emerged on Monday, analysts generally viewed the summit and its promise of dialogue as a positive step between the strategic and economic allies.
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said the trilateral summit “shows that Biden is very serious about getting both Canada and Mexico again, leaving the Trump administration’s relative isolationism behind.”
The trip began amicably late Sunday, when López Obrador met Biden at the new Felipe Angeles International Airport, a prized infrastructure project for the Mexican president, and rode into the capital with him in Biden’s limousine; The next day, López Obrador called the encounter “very nice” and called Biden “a friendly person”.
The Mexican and US presidents and their teams met on Monday at Mexico’s National Palace.
On the agenda were issues that have come to define the bilateral relationship, including immigration and drug trafficking.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in Mexico City that Biden “is looking forward to a deep dive on a range of priority issues for his administration.” Those concerns include the smuggling of fentanyl from Mexico, Sullivan said, a synthetic opioid blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the United States.
US authorities would like to see Mexico do more to target clandestine drug laboratories and crack down on trafficking in this substance.
Meanwhile, Mexican officials have long called on Washington to curb the illegal trade in weapons — including assault rifles — from the United States to Mexico. Weapons often end up in the hands of organized crime groups that have widespread influence throughout most of Mexico.
How best to deal with smuggling and organized crime has been a bone of contention between the two countries since López Obrador took office. The two countries’ long-standing security partnership nearly collapsed in 2020, when the United States arrested retired general Salvador Cienfuegos — Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 — at Los Angeles International Airport, accusing him of conspiring with drug traffickers. The Mexican military was furious, and López Obrador threatened to halt future security cooperation with the United States unless Cienfuegos was released.
The United States dropped the charges against Cienfuegos and he was sent back to Mexico, where he was released. López Obrador drew the ire of US law enforcement when he accused the Drug Enforcement Administration of trying to implicate Cienfuegos, calling the accusations “nonsense”.
But US officials say in private that tensions have eased recently and that López Obrador’s administration has repeatedly handed over one key US priority: catching drug kingpins.
Days after López Obrador met Biden at the White House in July 2021, Mexican forces captured Rafael Caro Quintero, a cartel member believed to be behind the 1985 killing of US drug enforcement agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.
Many here have speculated that the Mexican government’s recovery last week of Ovidio Guzmán, son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, may have been another “gift” to Washington ahead of Biden’s visit.
Immigration has also been a source of bilateral tension – and in recent months of joint cooperation.
US authorities recorded more than two million immigration detentions along the US-Mexico border, a record number, during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Days before Biden arrived in Mexico City, his administration announced a controversial immigration policy shift that appeared to have Mexico’s blessing.
In recent years, even as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere were swiftly expelled under Title 42, a public health rule Trump invoked, immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and some other countries were generally allowed to enter the United States and pursue asylum hearings. This was partly because their home countries were too unstable or too politically at odds with Washington for officials to coordinate large-scale returns, and partly because Mexican officials at the border refused to accept returnees from those countries after they were detained in the United States.
In October, as the number of Venezuelan migrants increased, the US and Mexican authorities announced that Venezuelans who reach the border without a permit would be quickly returned to Mexico.
Under the new guidelines, the policy of cross-border expulsions has expanded further: Migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti who cross into the United States without permission will be immediately returned to Mexico, even if they are seeking asylum, officials say. Mexico agreed to accept up to 30,000 deportees from the four countries each month. Lopez Obrador said Monday that Mexico may be willing to accept more deported immigrants.
Immigrant advocates have denounced the plan as a human rights violation that denies people their basic right to file asylum claims in the United States.
While the leaders have tried to portray themselves as a united front on immigration and fighting crime, they are openly at odds over López Obrador’s nationalist energy policies.
Since taking office in 2018, the Mexican president has tried to roll back the constitutional reform his predecessor began in 2013 that opened the door to more foreign interference in the energy sector. The United States and Canada argue that these efforts discriminate against US and Canadian companies and favor Mexico’s state oil company and its national electric utility.
In July, the United States and Canada filed a formal complaint against Mexico under the two countries’ joint trade agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
One potential point of contention between Biden and López Obrador is climate change, a priority issue for the Biden administration, but not one that the Mexican president publicly embraces.
López Obrador revitalized coal plants, halted new renewable energy projects, spent billions building a state-owned oil refinery, and pushed legislation that would require Mexico’s electricity company to get more power from state-run plants, fueled largely by crude oil. Big and charcoal.
His policies could not be different from those of Biden, who has pushed for historic investments in clean energy and seeks to wean the nation and the world off fossil fuels, said Bayan of Rice University.
“The Biden administration is deeply committed to fighting climate change,” Bayan said. “And I think Mexico should be a part of it.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.