US, Mexico play up increased security cooperation

US-Mexican relationship has been strained by Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants, Nafta and his insistence on building a border wall

Mexico City: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted Friday the US and Mexico are bolstering cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, brushing aside concerns about the impact of his boss Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican barbs.

The US-Mexican relationship has been strained by Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants and the North American Free Trade Agreement — and his insistence on building a border wall.

Critics say he is jeopardising the US relationship with an ally and neighbour whose cooperation Washington needs on a range of issues, including security.

But as Tillerson kicked off his first major tour of Latin America, he and his Mexican counterpart sought to play down any tensions, focusing instead on fighting what the former oilman turned secretary of state called the “devastating impact” of the international narcotics trade.

“We’ve created … a different approach as to how we cooperate to attack the entire supply chain of this devastating impact of drugs — cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, opioids,” Tillerson said after meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Canada’s Chrystia Freeland in Mexico City.

“This is having a horrible effect on American citizens, Mexican citizens, Canadian citizens.”

In October, Trump declared the US opioid crisis a national public health emergency, after overdoses of drugs such as heroin and fentanyl killed more than 40,000 people in 2016.

Videgaray said all three countries had agreed to place “special emphasis” on fighting both the supply and demand side of the problem: the Mexican drug cartels fuelling a wave of bloodshed in his country, and the US and Canadian consumption making it a multi-billion-dollar business.

“The paradigm has to be one of cooperation, not blaming each other,” he said.

Tillerson later met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, saying they both agreed the two countries’ relationship remained strong.

“We have too many things of common interest that we need to be working on to allow anything to get in the way,” Tillerson told US embassy staff after the meeting.

Mexico and Canada’s top diplomats also played down tensions, despite Trump’s tirades and a recent series of trade disputes between the Washington and Ottawa.

“In many ways the relationship today is more close, it’s more fluid, than it was with the previous administration. That might be a surprise for many people, but it’s a fact,” Videgaray said.

Freeland said Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “really get along” and called Tillerson “an incredibly important voice in maintaining the rules-based international order.”

But it was impossible to paper over tensions on certain issues.

Videgaray stayed mum as Tillerson sought to explain Trump’s wall proposal and immigration crackdown as part of a shared security push.

Deporting those who lack immigration papers fits into Trump’s law and order agenda, even if it is “painful” for some people, Tillerson said.

Videgaray said both that and the wall were internal decisions for the US government.

But he added that a mass exodus of “Dreamers” — who were illegally brought to the United States as children and are now at the centre of a bitter political battle — would be “an enormous gain for Mexico and a loss for the United States.”

With a new round of talks on overhauling Nafta scheduled for next month, Canada and Mexico hope the agreement can be salvaged.

Videgaray and Freeland both touted their vision for a “win-win-win” deal.

Tillerson acknowledged the huge role of North American trade in the US economy.

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of our economic relationships,” he said.

The three also found common ground on the Venezuela crisis, calling for President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government to restore constitutional rule.

“What we would like to see happen there is a peaceful transition,” Tillerson said, denying accusations from Caracas of plotting a violent ouster.

He added that “if — if — President Maduro would return to the Venezuelan constitution, restore the duly elected assembly, dismantle the illegitimate constituent assembly and return to free, fair elections,” he’d be welcome to “stay and run.”

Tillerson flew out Friday evening for Argentina, and will then visit Peru, Colombia and Jamaica, pushing for stronger action on Venezuela and touting his vision of deeper cooperation.

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