Smith: U.S. ties with Mexico matter now more than ever

Author: Morgan Smith - March 15, 2017 - Updated: March 13, 2017

Morgan Smith
Morgan Smith

With all the excitement, chaos, turmoil — whatever you want to call it — that has filled Donald Trump’s first days in office, it’s easy to forget that Joaquín Guzmán, “El Chapo,” the world’s most notorious criminal and drug cartel leader was extradited from Mexico to the United States the same day as Trump’s inauguration. El Chapo had twice escaped from high security Mexican prisons, to the enormous embarrassment of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. For many Mexicans, however, he is a folk hero, with many believing that he did more to help the poor in his home state of Sinaloa than the Mexican government.

El Chapo was taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, a high security facility where there is little possibility that he can escape. But what will happen next, how does the behavior of our president impact that and what are the larger issues at stake in this suddenly — and totally unnecessary, in my opinion — turmoil in our relations with Mexico, our neighbor to the south? These are important questions if for no other reason than El Chapo might end up spending the rest of his life in the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

There are two options. First, El Chapo goes to trial. Given his lengthy criminal history, it would seem logical that he would be convicted. But who will dare to testify against him? Yes, prospective witnesses will be offered all sorts of guarantees of safety but, given the current bad relations between our two countries, why would they believe that their names won’t be leaked, a death sentence for them and their families.

To take it a step further, who would dare represent him? The penalty for failure can be deadly. Look, for example, at the case of the two doctors who performed unsuccessful plastic surgery on Amado Carrillo in 1997. (Carrillo was known as the “Lord of the Skies” because he had a fleet of planes to fly his drugs to the United States.) Their bodies were found several months later encased in barrels of cement.

More likely, El Chapo is working hard on a plea bargain. What he has to bargain with is his enormous knowledge of the drug world not only in Mexico but the many other countries he did business in, including the United States. This information would be invaluable to U.S. prosecutors and law enforcement agencies but in cases like Mexico, they won’t be able to use it unilaterally. They will have to cooperate with law enforcement officials in those countries. How is that going to happen if President Trump keeps worsening relationships between our two countries? Law enforcement agencies are inherently territorial; that’s a much more difficult problem when you’re dealing with different countries, different languages and leaders who are at odds.

El Chapo’s case is a small example of how we’re turning a moment of opportunity into a longtime catastrophe.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman)

Look at the larger picture. President Trump has repeatedly humiliated Peña Nieto. What are the real consequences of that kind of behavior? Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are only about 12 percent, so Trump can’t do much more damage to him. The real issue is that Mexico’s presidential elections are only 16 months away, Peña Nieto can’t run again, and the man who has lost the last two presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is leading in the polls. Rabidly anti-American, he would be our worst nightmare no matter who was our president. Trump’s behavior is lifting AMLO up in the polls.

So our president’s behavior is not only potentially hindering effective law enforcement and anti-drug prosecutions but could also help elect a Mexican president whose dislike of the United States is bottomless. And we haven’t even gotten to the damage he could do to American businesspeople and farmers with his talk about NAFTA and trade.

Texas gave Trump 52.2 percent of its votes compared to 43.2 percent for Hillary Clinton, yet how are all those Trump supporters going to deal with this chaos? Texas companies export close to $100 billion a year to Mexico. In fact, between 30 and 35 percent of all Texas exports go to Mexico each year, more than three times what Texas exports to Canada, its second largest market.

And what about all those farmers who voted for Trump? Twenty percent of farm income comes from exports and it’s the one area where we have a trade surplus — an estimated $20 billion in 2015. As for Colorado, the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee, founded in 1958, was promoting Colorado wheat exports long before the state of Colorado established what was then called the Colorado International Trade Office. Nationally, 50 percent of all wheat is exported. Mexico is our third largest market for agricultural exports right after Canada and China.

At his confirmation hearing, retired Marine Corps General and now Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said that Russia was first in terms of threats to U.S. security. North Korea, China and Iran have to also be on that list. Why then this continuing focus on stirring up trouble with Mexico? This could be a time of new opportunities, not only in terms of law enforcement via the El Chapo situation but trade and business as well.

Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith served with Steve Hogan in the Colorado House of Representatives in the 1975 and 1976 sessions. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.