International

Trump sends top team to meet Mexican president-elect

US President Donald Trump sent a team of top officials to Mexico on Friday to meet with President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist who has been elected at a low point in relations between the neighbors.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen disembark from their plane in Mexico City, where Pompeo will meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen disembark from their plane in Mexico City, where Pompeo will meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AFP)

US President Donald Trump sent a team of top officials to Mexico on Friday to meet with President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist who has been elected at a low point in relations between the neighbors.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading the high-level delegation, which also includes Trump's son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

All issues in the relationship will be on the table, including trade, migration, security and the border, a senior State Department official said Thursday in a background briefing on the trip.

"Pleased to visit Mexico on my first trip as secretary of state," Pompeo tweeted on arrival in Mexico City.

"We look forward to meeting president-elect Lopez Obrador."

The one-day visit includes meetings with outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who hands power to Lopez Obrador on December 1, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.

The State Department official described the trip as a "testament to the importance the administration and the United States place on the bilateral relationship."

But many thorny issues could make for a tough visit.

The US Homeland Security Department said Nielsen would be raising the sensitive subject of Central American migrants who cross Mexico to reach the United States.

She will "reaffirm the necessity for regional governments, international organizations, and the private sector to share responsibility for Central American migrant flows and find options for these individuals to remain within or closer to their countries of origin," her office said in a statement.

Putting Trump 'in his place'?

US-Mexican relations have been strained since Trump won the White House in 2016 after a campaign laced with anti-Mexican insults, attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and vows to make Mexico pay for a wall on the common border.

Since then, US tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum, Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy on undocumented immigrants, separation of migrant families and Pena Nieto's two abrupt cancellations of visits to Washington have only added to the tension.

Lopez Obrador, widely known as "AMLO," pledged during the campaign to "put (Trump) in his place."

But both men say they had a positive phone call the day after Mexico's July 1 election, which Lopez Obrador won in a landslide, with over 53 percent of the vote -- more than 30 points clear of his nearest rival.

Promising a change in direction, he was swept to office by a wave of outrage with corruption and brutal violence driven by Mexico's powerful drug cartels.

Despite their ideological differences, some commentators have drawn parallels between Trump and Lopez Obrador: both are free trade skeptics with populist tendencies who mobilized a disgruntled base with anti-establishment campaigns.

Trump has even reportedly taken to calling Lopez Obrador "Juan Trump" in private.

Touchy issues

Pompeo's delegation will meet with Lopez Obrador at his offices, in an aging house with little security in Mexico City's trendy Roma neighborhood.

Lopez Obrador, 64, has acknowledged the house is an unusual venue to welcome high-level dignitaries.

"It's not very big because the next government doesn't want ostentatious offices. We're going to put an end to the paraphernalia of power," said the president-elect, who has raised eyebrows for refusing to use bodyguards.

There was a heavier-than-usual security cordon at the large red-and-white house on Friday, with swarms of waiting journalists kept at a distance of some 30 meters (yards).

The meeting will be attended by Lopez Obrador's future ministers of finance, economy and security, as well as his choice to lead the renegotiation of NAFTA, the 1994 deal that has helped turn Mexico into a major exporter -- with 80 percent of those exports shipped to the United States.

Also at the meeting will be Lopez Obrador's pick for foreign minister, former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard.

In a potential sore spot for the Trump administration, Ebrard worked on Latino get-out-the-vote campaigns on behalf of Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election.