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Former Mexican Foreign Minister On U.S.-Mexican Trade Negotiations


Late yesterday, Mexico's foreign minister said Mexico will send 6,000 of its National Guard troops to the Mexico-Guatemala border. Mexico said these troops will cut the number of Central Americans trying to make their way to the U.S. border. This all appears to be an effort to appease the Trump administration. But for now, the U.S. is sticking by a promise to impose tariffs on Mexico starting Monday morning. As these talks wrapped up last night, Vice President Mike Pence had this to say.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Mexico must do significantly more to end this crisis of illegal immigration at our border. We called on them to take even more steps, more decisive action.

KING: Jorge Castaneda is on the line with me now from Mexico City. He was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. And he's now a professor at New York University. Good morning, sir.

JORGE CASTANEDA: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So by your read of this, why has Mexico agreed to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to its border with with Guatemala?

CASTANEDA: Well, basically as a result of American pressure. This is the consequence of President Trump's threat to impose the 5% tariff on Mexican imports to the United States as of this Monday with a 5% increase every month until reaching 25%. These are very tough measures taken against Mexico and the Mexican government. President Lopez Obrador decided that it is not in any shape, any condition to be able to resist that pressure. And basically, as you yourself put it, it's a form of appeasement. Whether this will work or not is a different story. But...

KING: Yeah.

CASTANEDA: And whether it's sufficient is a different story. But for starters, that's the reason.

KING: I'd like to ask you about that. Our reporter Carrie Kahn is based in Mexico. She's been covering this story. She told us this morning that the Mexican National Guard is relatively new, relatively small and already has a lot of work to do inside of Mexico on other issues. Do you think these troops will actually make a difference?

CASTANEDA: No, I don't at all, especially not in the short term, because the Mexican National Guard in fact doesn't really exist yet. It's just the army with a different uniform and armbands of a different color. It doesn't really exist. It hasn't really been set up yet. The law was just passed a couple of months or two ago. So this is a new institution made up of old military, old federal police, old navy. They're barely being trained. They're not ready to go into action yet. And in addition to that, they are - they will be removed from other places.

This actually occurred in 2014 when we had a crisis of unaccompanied minors. And President Obama at the time asked President Pena Nieto to send troops to the far southern border, which he did. And with time, the number of children reaching the United States border diminished dramatically. But violence in Mexico increased also dramatically because he was taking troops away from other parts of the country where they were needed to fight drug cartels, organized crime, et cetera. I'm a bit scared that the same thing will happen on this occasion.

KING: Well, let's talk about the implications. That's interesting. The Trump administration has been pushing for Mexico to sign a, quote, "safe third country" agreement. Now, that would mean non-Mexican migrants would be considered safe in Mexico. And therefore, they couldn't apply for asylum in the United States. What are the implications of that? Would Mexico be a safe place for these people?

CASTANEDA: Well, it certainly is not a safe place for Mexicans, so I don't see why it would be a safe place for Guatemalans. For the moment, the safe third country agreement that's been talked about in the press today would apply only to Guatemalans, whereas Guatemala would apply the same principle to Honduras and to El Salvador, which is kind of paradoxical seeing as how - to call Guatemala a safe country for Hondurans and Salvadorans is really kind of tragic. It's one of the most violent countries in the world right now that's not at war.

And as far as Mexico is concerned, we're going through some of the worst levels of violence we have seen in recent Mexican history the last 25 or 30 years. So to consider Mexico a safe country for anybody, let alone foreigners who do not have money, who do not have protection, who do not have homes, who do not have any kind of wealth, is really a challenge. It's not a joke because it's too sad to call it that. Unfortunately, it seems that Mexico is going to accept the safe third country agreement, at least for Guatemalans. And this would be a real tragedy for the country.

KING: Mexico's president in a tough spot here. He's holding a rally this weekend to, quote, "defend the dignity of Mexico," unquote. Do you think he's been effective in dealing with the United States and the pressure coming from here?

CASTANEDA: Well, he has done what he could, which is basically to not pick any fight with President Trump over any point at any cost. He decided just after he was elected last July almost a year now ago that he was not going to pick a fight with anybody, especially not with Donald Trump, because he wanted to concentrate on his domestic agenda.

Now, it turns out, of course, that some of these issues which he thought were foreign policy issues are domestic issues. And he may not pick a fight with Donald Trump, but Donald Trump is picking fights with him constantly. And so now we find ourselves in the situation where Mexico is subject to this enormous pressure, has to do things that it should not do but really doesn't have much of a choice.

KING: Jorge Castaneda is a former foreign minister of Mexico. Sir, thanks so much for joining us.

CASTANEDA: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.