- Transcripts (2024)

America's Mess With Mexico. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired July 07, 2024 - 10:00 ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: On May 13, 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. President James Polk claimed that America had been attacked. But in reality, the invasion was a brazen land grant. American troops made it all the way to Mexico City, and the US annexed much of today's western United States. The future founder of the Republican Party, and Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln passionately opposed the war.

But today's Republicans have Mexico in their sights once again. Back when he was president, Donald Trump asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper if he could launch missiles at Mexico's drug cartels without Mexico's permission, and then blamed the attack on another country. We could do it quietly, Trump said, no one would know it was us. Esper told him the idea was ridiculous, an act of war against one of America's biggest trading partners. But Trump would not back down, and an Oval Office fantasy --

DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER US PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will deploy all necessary military assets --

ZAKARIA: -- became a 2024 campaign pledge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Justified military force to decimate the cartel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He told the Mexican president either you do it or we do it.

ZAKARIA: And soon it was a popular Republican policy. Over 20 Republican congressmen have signed on to a vast war power authorization --


ZAKARIA: -- like the measures for Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump has ordered his advisors to draw battle plans calling for missile strikes, a naval blockade and boots on the ground. How did America and Mexico come to this?

Welcome to a Special Hour on Mexico, I'm Fareed Zakaria. From the border to the economy, to the cartels, America and Mexico have a relationship that has been crucial and complicated. America blames Mexico for its deadly drug prices while American demand helps keep the cartels in business. Millions pour over the southern border. But without Mexico's help, there would likely be millions and millions more.

In a myriad of ways, this pivotal relationship and how America chooses to shape it holds the keys to both countries' future.

Fentanyl is now driving the drug overdose crisis across the country. It is the most lethal drug epidemic in American history, the fentanyl crisis. Synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl, killed an estimated 75,000 Americans in 2023 alone. More than all of the US troops killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam combined. Deaths went up 94 percent in a three year period.

And no one brings more fentanyl into the United States than the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. It was headed for years famously by Joaquin Guzman, better known by his nickname El Chapo. No one put more drugs on the street in American history than him.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The DEA says Guzman was responsible for 25 percent of all the narcotics flowing into the US.

ZAKARIA: El Chapo built a sophisticated billion dollar multinational empire that rival Fortune 500 companies.

SHANNON O'NEIL, AUTHOR, "GLOBALIZATION MYTH": He was apprehended a few times, and got away a couple of times, but now is in the US criminal system and doesn't look to get out anytime soon.

ZAKARIA: El Chapo bequeathed his vast empire to four of his sons, the Sinaloa Cartel and list of heavily armed fighting force known as the Little Chapos or Los Chapitos.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ivan, Alfredo, Ovidio and Joaquin.

ZAKARIA: And it was El Chapo sons who made a prescient early bet on a promising new product, and would become America's biggest suppliers of fentanyl.

ANABEL HERNANDEZ, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: They were able to see that producing fentanyl will be the new very important synthetic drug in the market.

ZAKARIA: Americans had been hooked on prescription opioids like OxyContin in the '90s.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doctors are prescribing more and more Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, and we can't seem to stop taking it.

ZAKARIA: But then the government cracked down on big pharma in the 2000s. The crackdown left a massive void in the opioid market and Los Chapitos' race to fill it. First with heroin, then with fentanyl, the profits from their new product were off the charts.

HERNANDEZ: The bosses of the Sinaloa cartel are able to get just for themselves $400 million per month, just profits in the pocket. ZAKARIA: Just five pounds of fentanyl could be sold for 10 times as much money as 7,000 pounds of methamphetamine. What's more, fentanyl was easier to make than other drugs in small labs, in kitchens and basem*nts, instead of massive operations out in the jungle, as with cocaine.

HERNANDEZ: It's very easy and very cheap. You don't need all that infrastructure.

ZAKARIA: By 2017, fentanyl was causing more overdoses than any other drug in America. Meanwhile, in Mexico, a new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was embracing a new approach to the drug war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's even popularized the saying, "abrazos no balazos."

ZAKARIA: Hugs not bullets. After years of Mexico's military fighting the cartels, Mexico's people had paid a horrifying price. Ten of thousands were dead from drug-related violence. AMLO wanted to reduce that violence and boost the job market. He dismantled much of Mexico's years long security collaboration with America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what it sounds like, a drug cartel powers the state.

ZAKARIA: But when Mexican forces tried to capture one of Los Chapitos --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're outgunning law enforcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doesn't even look like it was close to being a fair fight.

ZAKARIA: They were no match for the cartels armory.

O'NEIL: The next Mexican military captured them and then they got away.

HERNANDEZ: Los Chapitos are powerful and strong but not by themselves. They have the complicity of many parts of the Mexican government.

ZAKARIA: And the Little Chapos' lethal product kept on coming. By 2021, American overdose deaths, mostly from fentanyl, were over seven times higher than in 2015.

With all of the carnage from the fentanyl epidemic, bombing the cartels without Mexico's permission, may be attempting election you're talking point. But experts on the drug trade agree that this would only be a fool's errand and make things even worse for both Mexico and America.


O'NEIL: The challenge with the idea of bombing cartels is, what are you going to bomb? ZAKARIA: Fentanyl labs are so small and so plentiful that trying to bomb them would be like bombing every convenience store in New York City. HERNANDEZ: You have to kill all the civilians that live in Culiacan.

ZAKARIA: The United States would be at war with its biggest trading partner, and migration already setting records would spike even more.

HERNANDEZ: It's ridiculous that you are thinking that, oh, let's bomb the cartels.

ZAKARIA: If America really wants to hit the cartels where it hurts, it should tackle its own insatiable demand for their product. Roughly 80 percent of the world's opioids are consumed in the United States of America.

HERNANDEZ: If you really want to fight against the cartels, destroy the market.

ZAKARIA: But rather than attacking the demand problem, America has relied on brute force to fight drug cartels --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The DEA says it has trained 551 Mexican police officers.

ZAKARIA: -- in a decade's long losing game of whack-a-mole.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seventy percent of all the cocaine seized in the United States came from here.

ZAKARIA: In the 1980s, Miami was America's capital of cocaine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The largest bust in United States history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One billion dollars worth of cocaine.

ZAKARIA: The DEA launched Operation Swordfish, indicting dozens in the drug trade. But the cocaine kept on coming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Operation just called, US troops fanned out in the air and on the ground.

ZAKARIA: In 1989 --

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FORMER US PRESIDENT: the goals of the United States have been to combat drug trafficking.

ZAKARIA: President George H. W. Bush invaded Panama, to take out its leader drug trafficker, Manuel Noriega.

BUSH: I think it's a major victory against the drug lords.

ZAKARIA: But American demand was still going through the roof. In the late 1990s --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are proud to stand with our friend and our neighbor.

ZAKARIA: -- President Bill Clinton launched Plan Colombia. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a war and the enemy is cocaine.

ZAKARIA: -- sending billions to that country's military, target its cocaine operations. Drug production did slow down, but then came back even bigger. And the production decline in Colombia led to Mexico's cartels filling the vacuum.

O'NEIL: We've seen this over and over again, if you destroy one laboratory, you destroy one field, you destroy one network, others will come and replace that.

ZAKARIA: And there's another way that America actually helps Mexico's cartels besides its appetite for their product. Seventy to 90 percent of all the guns trafficked in Mexico come from the United States.

O'NEIL: It is the case that the Mexican government has long claimed against the United States. You want us to stop sending drugs, well, you need to stop sending the guns that feel the violence here.

ZAKARIA: Coming up, the southern border and how the US has relied on Mexico to be its border enforcement.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: a breaking point at the US-Mexico border.

ZAKARIA: Year after year, records of the border are shattered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A major surge of border crossings.

ZAKARIA: Over 2.4 million migrants were apprehended last year, an all time high --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those numbers have been staggering.

ZAKARIA: -- breaking the record set just one year earlier, which topped the record set the year before that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are at the point of no turn.

ZAKARIA: People have been coming --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everywhere from Haiti, to Venezuela --

ZAKARIA: -- from all over the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: India, Vietnam, Afghanistan.

ZAKARIA: But one country that's actually not driving the surge is Mexico. At the start of the century, Mexicans made up 98 percent of the migrants at the southern border. Last year, only 29 percent were from Mexico. What's more, the number of Mexicans coming to America has sometimes been fewer than the number of Mexicans leaving the US to go back to Mexico in recent years. That's due in part to the country's economy, which has been doing pretty well.

PETER GOODMAN, REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: People want to stay home. And the more working opportunities there are in Mexico, the more people will tend to stay home or even return.

ZAKARIA: Mexico has even become a destination for many migrants, the fifth most popular country for asylum seekers in the world in 2022. Instead of being big border crossers, the Mexicans have become America's go to border in forces, sadly.

JONATHAN BLITZER, AUTHOR, "EVERYONE WHO IS GONE IS HERE": One element of an American response is always going to be to outsource as much of the enforcement question as it can to the Mexican government.

ZAKARIA: Mexico is actually in very much the same bind with migration as America.

O'NEIL: Mexico has a very similar problem, overwhelmed with people who are applying for asylum. Police forces are overwhelmed, the shelters are totally overwhelmed.

ZAKARIA: And as Mexico's government struggles to keep up, the journey has become even more perilous for the migrants.

BLITZER: What makes it so dangerous is the fact that there are threats really on all sides.

ZAKARIA: On the one side, violent drug cartels who have found a cruel new way to make money,

O'NEIL: You see organized crime moving increasingly into the trafficking of migrants.

ZAKARIA: The smuggling business has become even more lucrative than dealing fentanyl. For migrants, it can be just as deadly.

BLITZER: When cartels can't extort migrants for money, they often just kill the people that kidnapped.

ZAKARIA: Another danger, often Mexican authorities, sometimes corrupt, sometimes inept, sometimes lethal. In March 2023, a fire broke out at a migrant detention center --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Migrants were left locked in the cells.

ZAKARIA: -- killing dozens. Looming over all of this mess is the United States.


BLITZER: There's no question that the US is certainly complicit in some of the things that are happening in Mexico, if not outright responsible. ZAKARIA: The fact is, America has relied on Mexico to do its dirty work for years, deterring, detaining and deporting migrants before they get to America's southern border. And it's a strategy that's been relied upon by both Republicans and Democrats.

July 2014, America was witnessing an unprecedented crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They came without their parents.

ZAKARIA: A wave of migrant children coming from Central America.

BLITZER: Seemingly overnight, tens of thousands of children and family showed up at the southern border, the US government was caught completely flat-footed.

ZAKARIA: President Obama pushed Mexico to focus on the southern border, Mexico southern border. One thousand miles away, US dollars helped transform Mexico's border with Guatemala. A network of military bases, observation towers, canine teams and mobile checkpoints sprung up on the hunt for migrants.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER US PRESIDENT: UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In part because of strong efforts by Mexico, we've seen those numbers reduced back to much more manageable levels.

ZAKARIA: The next year, Mexico deported more Central Americans than the United States for the first time in history.

BLITZER: And so by the end of the Obama administration, you weren't seeing the same kind of drama at the southern border that you saw in 2014. People kind of wrote it off as problem solved.

ZAKARIA: But Obama strategy didn't work for long, President Trump arrived with bold rhetoric.

TRUMP: We're not letting these people invade our country.

ZAKARIA: But when his draconian policies failed --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The growing outrage over families being separated at the border --

ZAKARIA: -- and the construction of his border wall dragged, Trump focused on turning Mexico into his wall. Many believed that would be a challenge. Mexico's new leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, had campaigned on ending his country's migrant crackdown.

BLITZER: This idea that we're not going to do America's dirty work.

ZAKARIA: But as a fresh wave of migrants headed for the US --

TRUMP: We want all of them to stop. We want Mexico to stop.

ZAKARIA: Trump threatened to bury Mexico's economy under an avalanche of tariffs, AMLO changed his tune on migration.

O'NEIL: Once he came into office, he doubled down and moved even further than the previous government.

ZAKARIA: He expanded Trump's Remain in Mexico policy -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forced to wait in some of the most dangerous cities on earth.

ZAKARIA: -- trapping more migrants in Mexico. And he turned his newly formed National Guard meant for taking on drug violence into a border patrol.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translation): Please don't let me be taken back.

ZAKARIA: Thousands of troops fanned out across Mexico.

BLITZER: And there were scenes, really grisly scenes, all through Mexico of these National Guardsmen really cracking down and responding with force.

ZAKARIA: Migrants would tear gas, beaten and thrown into prison like detention centers. Some were shot and killed. The Mexican government has defended the National Guard, saying it respects human rights.

TRUMP: Mexico is doing more for the United States as of now, than Congress.

ZAKARIA: President Biden took office promising to dramatically change the nation's approach to migration.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: It's time for our better angels to prevail.

ZAKARIA: But the US continued to rely on Mexico to do its dirty work.

O'NEIL: Cooperation on migration continued and even expanded with the Biden administration.

ZAKARIA: The results under Biden more of the same.

GOODMAN: Let's get real. In the same way that water runs downhill, human beings go where there's a better deal.

ZAKARIA: And that better deal more economic opportunity and a better life continues to be found in the United States. The truth is, Mexico can't solve America's border crisis. It's really up to America.

BLITZER: All of the obvious solutions to reduce pressure at the southern border run through Congress, and Congress is a kind of dead zone on this issue --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lawmakers block a border deal.

BLITZER: -- until we run right into a wall.

ZAKARIA: And in a surprising twist, that political paralysis has given Mexico leverage over Washington. [10:25:06]

With America depending on Mexico to control the border, AMLO use that leverage to strengthen his hand at home, inching Mexico toward autocracy without a peep from the US.

Coming up next, the disturbing rise of an illiberal democracy next door.



UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump.

ZAKARIA: Mass protests --

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Four more years. Four more years.

ZAKARIA: -- against alleged election fraud demands for a recount.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS (in unison): Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

ZAKARIA: A politician insisting he won the presidency weeks after officials called the election for his opponent.

TRUMP: This was a landslide.

ZAKARIA: A familiar story for American voters, and as it turns out, for Mexican voters too.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, MEXICAN PRESIDENT (through translation): We're going to ask that the elections be cleaned.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After two months of public debate, accusations and protests in the streets, a winner has finally been declared in Mexico's presidential election.

ZAKARIA: The year was 2006, and the election's loser, the man sewing the chaos, was the former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. AMLO, as he's come to be known, would never forget that loss. And for that, Mexico's democracy would suffer.

In 2018, AMLO won the presidency, and increasingly adopted Donald Trump's waves, accused of defying the Constitution and threatening Mexico's democracy. His handpicked successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, was recently elected president. Many fear that AMLO will still be the power behind the throne once she takes office.

HERNANDEZ: In his head, he's not the president of Mexico, he's the owner of Mexico.

ZAKARIA: Mexico is rapidly becoming an illiberal democracy, like Hungary or Turkey, but in this case right on America's doorstep. The birth of Mexico's modern democracy is an inspiring and relatively recent tale. The country was a one party state for over seven decades, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI.

O'NEIL: They held elections, but not free and fair elections. So they managed to control the presidency, the federal government as well as the governorships and others for many, many years.

ZAKARIA: Every leader chose his successor, and the party was accused of relying on repression and fraud to ensure victory. But then, along came a small but mighty government watchdog, the Federal Electoral Institute. It oversaw Mexico's elections, and became the foundation of Mexico's democracy.

O'NEIL: This electoral Institute really became world class. It became one of the most independent run by technically sophisticated people, and became known as a model of electoral agencies.

ZAKARIA: In 2000, the PRI's grip on power finally ended with then president Ernesto Zedillo, paving the way for Mexico's first free and fair election. But AMLO was just around the corner. After he lost the presidency for the first time in 2006.

LOPEZ OBRADOR (through translation): We will continue to fight.

ZAKARIA: He ran and lost again in 2012. Through it all, he kept his eyes on the prize.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In a few hours, Mexicans will be waking up to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the newly elected president.

ZAKARIA: The year was 2018, Lopez Obrador and his Morena Party were now calling the shots. And Mexico's hallowed election watchdog, the successor to the agency that called AMLO's election losses was in their crosshairs.


O'NEIL: AMLO was upset that he lost the 2006 election, and it was the Electoral Institute that called the result. So he has always since that moment held a grudge.

ZAKARIA: In an effort to undercut the institute, AMLO has again and again championed what he calls electoral reform. In late 2022, he proposed massive cuts to the institute's budget and personnel, potentially crippling its capacity to run elections. Democracy, as Mexico knew it, hung in the balance. Even so, Mexico's legislature approved AMLO's reforms.

Protesters took to the streets. But then Mexico Supreme Court overturned the president's plan, saving Mexican democracy for now.

O'NEIL: He has systematically eroded the checks and balances that civil society leaders and politicians worked hard to build up over the last 20 years.

ZAKARIA: Taking a page out of Donald Trump's playbook, Lopez Obrador has repeatedly vilified members of the media.


ZAKARIA: At one press conference, he named several prominent journalists saying that listening to them is "bad for your health," and that, "you could even develop a brain tumor." The very next day, there was an assassination attempt against one of those journalists, prominent news anchor Ciro Gomez Leyva.

BLITZER: Mexico, I think, is probably one of the most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist in the world. And it doesn't seem like the government is even coming close to taking the situation seriously enough.

ZAKARIA: Another frightening feature of AMLO's Mexico, a chilling surveillance tool called Pegasus. Operators can covertly install the powerful software on a target cell phone, and then see nearly everything on that device from texts to emails, to photos. Mexico's military was the first ever client to purchase the spyware over a decade ago. And over the years, Mexico has been one of the most prolific users of the software in the world.

The company that developed Pegasus says that its software is supposed to be used only for fighting crime and terrorists.

AMLO promised to end the political spying, but Pegasus infections targeting journalists and activists have continued under his watch. Many suspect the military is responsible, they deny it.

And the military's powers under AMLO, hardly and (inaudible).

HERNANDEZ: The military became with AMLO, the main power in Mexico and this is very, very, very dangerous.

ZAKARIA: AMLO and his Morena majority legislature replaced the federal police with a new National Guard full of active military members. Mexico's Armed Forces have also headed up customs operations and built major infrastructure projects like a controversial new airport.

BLITZER: To see the degree to which the military is now kind of out and about in the domestic sphere, I think that's a major shift and something that given Mexico's history, a lot of people are legitimately concerned about it.

O'NEIL: Democracies are really hard to build and they're easy to break. I think the real question is what does the next government do?

ZAKARIA: With AMLO's handpicked successor, president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum, set to take office in October, that remains to be seen.

Coming up, despite all of its challenges, Mexico could actually be on the cusp of an economic golden age. That's next.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ZAKARIA: Mexico faces enormous challenges like migration, the drug cartels and corruption. But it's also a nation of great promise that could be on the cusp of a long economic boom. JP Morgan CEO recently said that if you had to pick one country to invest in, Mexico might be the number one opportunity. The big reason, because in the great competition between the world's two great economic powers, the United States and China, the big winner could be Mexico.


To understand why we need to visit a city close to the Texas border, which is at the center of Mexico's hopes for a brighter future.

Monterrey, Mexico is nothing short of a boom town these days. It resembles Southern California with swanky shopping malls, pricey restaurants, and luxury apartments. Outside of town, new factories are sprouting up everywhere. That's because this city of 5 million, a major industrial hub in Mexico, is at the center of a massive metamorphosis in the world economy, where Mexico is challenging China as America's factory.

GOODMAN: It's a hugely significant moment in terms of understanding what's changed about the nature of globalization that we've all grown up with.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: China's factories are famous for making cheap t- shirts and jeans.

ZAKARIA: In the 1990s and 2000s, China was the factory of the world, thanks to his endless supply of cheap labor.

GOODMAN: China's centric globalization has dominated the last three decades. Clothing, shoes, 50, 60, 70, sometimes 90 percent of products made in China.

ZAKARIA: Corporate America thrived on this China centric business marvel, experiencing a golden age of profit.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to keep our jobs.

ZAKARIA: But American manufacturing was hit hard.

TRUMP: They want to take your throat out, they want to cut you apart.

They're ripping us off, folks. We're gonna a stand up to China.

ZAKARIA: And along came Donald Trump, who punished China with tariffs. President Biden kept those tariffs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the world's factory shuts down, it ripples around the globe.

ZAKARIA: And the pandemic disrupted supply chains with China even more. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dozens of cargo ships are idling at two of the biggest ports in the US.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lined up, ready to go.

GOODMAN: Running out of a vast range of manufactured goods causes a significant reassessment.

ZAKARIA: American companies wanted their suppliers to be much closer to home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Geographical proximity to the US cannot be overstated.

ZAKARIA: And a popular trend emerged.




ZAKARIA: Nearshoring.

GOODMAN: Nearshoring basically means bringing production back from a faraway place to a closer place, and they look in part at Mexico.

ZAKARIA: Mexico became America's ideal partner, right across the border with low cost labor and a free trade deal. In 2023, it eclipsed China as America's leading source of foreign goods

O'NEIL: We see trade up 20, 25 percent. It's in autos, it's in machinery, it's in electronics.

GOODMAN: I mean, there's a feeling of you got to get in there fast. It's like almost a gold rush.

ZAKARIA: There have been more goods coming across the border at Laredo, Texas, than goods arriving at the Port of Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trucks often wait hours for a chance to cross into Laredo.

ZAKARIA: Many of those goods come from Monterrey, and its home state of Nuevo Leon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tesla is opening a gigafactory in the Monterey area.

ZAKARIA: The state offers good security and a highly skilled workforce. Tec de Monterrey, Mexico's MIT, trains top engineers. The competition for local labor is intense, driving unemployment down to less than 3 percent.

GOODMAN: The Mexican worker, they're certainly in a position where they have much greater bargaining power than in many other parts of the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chinese companies are showing their robust manufacturing prisons.

ZAKARIA: And in an unexpected twist, lots of Chinese companies are coming to Mexico too, to get a made in Mexico label for their goods and avoid US tariffs. Trade between China and Mexico spiked nearly 40 percent in four years.

GOODMAN: Chinese companies are reacting aggressively.

ZAKARIA: China's bold moves in Mexico could backfire.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our hemisphere has been invaded by China.

ZAKARIA: They're stalking the US of closing the clever tariff loophole. But as America continues to distance itself from China in the geopolitical battle royale, Mexico's hopes remain sky high. And Monterrey's poised to lead the nation toward a brighter future.

Coming up, I'll give you my thoughts on Mexico.



ZAKARIA: Now for some closing thoughts on this crucial relationship. One of Mexico's longest serving presidents during the 19th century said to have remarked about his country's fate, "For Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." In fact, for much of its modern history, Mexico almost defined itself in opposition to the US.

As I've written before, people don't realize how far the relationship has come. Mexico saw itself as part of what was then called the Third World, resentful of its neo colonial treatment at the hands of its arrogant neighbor to the north. From the Mexican perspective, the United States' relationship with it was characterized by exploitation and annexation. After a failed attempt to purchase what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and other western states, President James Polk invaded Mexico and essentially seized this territory.

In 1853, the United States acquired even more Mexican land in the Gadsden Purchase. In total, the US got roughly half of Mexico's land. After that and well into the 20th century, Washington's approach toward Mexico was usually aimed at protecting the interests of large American corporations, especially its oil companies that had tried to operate in Mexico with minimal interference from local authorities.

All this bred a political climate of defiance and resistance towards Washington that made cross border cooperation difficult on almost any issue. Mexico was one of the few countries that rejected us assistance through John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress Program.

Things turned in the 1990s, the Cold War ended and the idea of a socialist country became less threatening to the United States. Mexico went through a series of economic crises in the '80s and '90s, and desperately needed help. It began opening up its economy and its political system. US firms were doing more business in Mexico and wanted a stable trading partner. Washington began to realize that the best solution to all the problems across the border, immigration, drugs, violence was a prosperous democratic Mexico. Relations between Mexico and the US soon transformed. The old anti- Americanism faded into oblivion. The two countries stepped up cooperation on almost all relevant issues, signing the North American Free Trade Agreement and working together on everything from water management to immigration, to drugs. The US used to be inundated with Mexicans coming illegally into the country.

Over the past decade and a half, more Mexicans have actually gone back home that have arrived. But with the rise of AMLO's party now deeply entrenched with a mere supermajority under its new leader, Claudia Sheinbaum, the reformers are in retreat.

Don't expect to see much pressure coming from the north. Under Trump and Biden, Washington has had a transactional relationship with Mexico, help us with drugs and immigration, and mostly with immigration. And we will not press you on the backsliding of democracy and the rule of law in Mexico. The result has been that Mexico is transforming into an illiberal democracy with a new one party state that is turning its back on many of the reforms that have modernized its economy and society over the last four decades.

This is tragic. Mexico is the United States' top trading partner, even outranking China and Canada. But this understates the interdependence between the two economies. One study estimated that 30 percent of finished goods the United States imports from Mexico is US made content, higher than any other country. A staggering number of people go back and forth across the border every day just to work, shop or see a doctor. By one estimate, over 140 million times a year.

The two peoples are now deeply intertwined economically, politically and culturally. The late George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's rock-ribbed Republican Secretary of State used to tell me that he thought the greatest opportunity facing the United States was to take its relations with Canada and Mexico, and transform them, turning the region into a North American powerhouse. It would become, he believed, the greatest economic engine in the world and create a zone of peace, prosperity and cooperation, an even more powerful model than the European Union.

Today, we see on both sides of the border, narrow self interest and short term politics, but shows his long term vision should be the strategic goal for both nations.

Thank you for watching this Special Hour on Mexico, I'm Fareed Zakaria.


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