How Mexico's President Laid the Foundation for a Wall
Enrique Peña Nieto helped put Trump in the White House.
Updated on January 26, 2017
Donald Trump made good today on part of his promise of an immigration crackdown. Mexico and Mexicans, along with countries he fears could send “radical Islamic terrorists,” are his principal targets. The southern border wall will be built and the president will actively pressure and persecute local officials who protect undocumented immigrants.
It’s one thing to chastise local mayors. It is quite another to escalate tensions with a country of over 120 million with which you share a border of some 2,000 miles. But it turns out that Trump has a key Mexican accomplice to achieve his objectives: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Trump would not be able to do what he’s planning without the complicity of the Mexican government. If Mexico had authorities concerned about the welfare of their people, actions like Trump’s would be stopped cold.
Indeed, the foreign government that made the greatest contribution to Donald Trump’s victory was not Russia. It was Mexico. Vladimir Putin’s alleged covert meddling in the presidential election pales in comparison to Peña Nieto’s overt, public support for Trump. The Mexican leader was expected to cash in on that support on Tuesday, January 31st, when he planned to become the first Latin American head of state to meet with the new U.S. president in the White House.
Peña Nieto has canceled the meeting in response to political pressure, but he will continue to push his underlying agenda of negotiating impunity for his government as his administration winds to an end. Indeed, he was prepared to sell his country down the river in hopes that Trump would ignore the vast corruption scandals and systematic human rights violations south of the border.
Trump and Peña Nieto have a great deal in common. The Mexican president already applies mass deportation policies, of the kind Trump promised, against Central Americans trying to cross Mexico towards the United States. Peña Nieto has also already begun construction, with U.S. help, of a high-technology equivalent of a “wall” on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
Like Trump, Peña Nieto has placed the corporate agenda front and center. He began his administration with a blitz of “structural reforms” that privatized the oil and electricity industries, rolled back protections for labor, and attacked public education. Freedom of expression and protest have also come under heavy fire. Marches are systematically repressed, social and political leaders jailed or assassinated, and journalists censored, fired or murdered. Federal security forces have also committed a series of heinous massacres. An extreme equivalent of the America’s Patriot Act, allowing for the permanent use of the military for law enforcement and the generalized suspension of habeas corpus, freedom of assembly, and other fundamental rights, is presently being discussed in the Mexican Congress.
Peña Nieto directly contributed to the success of the Trump campaign. On August 31st, 2016, the Mexican president organized what amounted to a royal reception for Trump at the Los Pinos Presidential Residence in Mexico City. The Republican candidate was struggling in the polls at the time, shortly after the Democratic National Convention had given Hillary Clinton a significant bump. One of Trump’s weakest spots was that he was perceived to be unable to handle the job of commander-in-chief or be fully respected by foreign leaders. His aggressive attacks on immigration had also created the impression that he was a racist.
Peña Nieto would save the day. As if Trump were already President of the United States, he was flown from the Mexico City airport to Los Pinos in the presidential helicopter. The two men then held a joint press conference adorned by Mexican and American flags in the ballroom normally reserved for foreign heads of state. Peña Nieto applauded the “fundamental agreements” with Trump on policy and offered to work with the Republican candidate to “strengthen” both the U.S.-Mexico and the Mexico-Guatemala borders. During his turn at the microphone, Trump proclaimed that Peña Nieto was his “friend.”
Energized by his campaign stop in Mexico City, Trump then travelled that afternoon to Arizona to deliver one of his key anti-immigration speeches. There, Trump simultaneously called Peña Nieto a “wonderful president” and publicly ratified his promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” Thanks to Peña Nieto, all of a sudden Trump miraculously had become, without modifying his policies an inch, both a statesman and a friend of Mexico and Mexicans. His polls rose thereafter.
After the November election, Peña Nieto continued his efforts to appease and please Trump. In December, the Mexican president named the man who orchestrated the Trump visit in August, Luis Videgaray, as his new foreign secretary. Videgaray is an economist who has confessed that he has absolutely no diplomatic experience. The only point supposedly in his favor is that he is apparently liked by Trump, who in September tweeted that Videgaray is a “brilliant finance minister and a wonderful man.”
The day before Trump´s inauguration, Peña Nieto also extradited Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States. This move has been widely interpreted in Mexico as an offering to show the Mexican president’s deference to Trump. Extradition procedures are long and complicated, and the Mexican authorities had repeatedly told President Obama that he needed to be patient. Then suddenly immediate action was mysteriously made possible, as if to greet the new resident of the White House.
Peña Nieto’s behavior flies in the face of those who would suppose that the kindred spirits in Latin America for figures like Trump would be so-called “populist” leaders like Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa or Evo Morales. The real Trump equivalent is Peña Nieto, since both have targeted Mexicans.
Mexicans on both sides of the Río Grande therefore find themselves today in a position of particularly extreme vulnerability. Not only are they under attack by the new U.S. administration, but they have also been abandoned by their own government. Hope remains, nevertheless, in the possibility of confronting the Trump-Peña Nieto alliance through the construction of a grand binational, citizen-led coalition in defense of justice in North America.