After El Paso, Mexico Takes a New Approach to Trump
On Sunday evening, as U.S. authorities considered bringing hate-crime charges against the gunman who opened fire in El Paso, the Mexican Foreign Minister did not waver. At a press conference in Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard spoke solemnly about the massacre, which took the lives of eight of his fellow-countrymen. “Mexico is indignant,” he said, adding, “We will not meet hate with hate, we will act with reason and within the law, but with firmness.” Ebrard announced that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General’s Office would look into a series of possible legal actions, such as bringing a criminal case against the shooter, charging him with committing acts of terrorism against Mexicans in the United States, demanding his extradition, and suing the seller of the assault-style rifle that he had used. Ebrard answered no questions, but he concluded his remarks by saying that, via diplomatic channels, his team would urge its American counterparts to take “a clear and forceful position against hate crimes.”
Ebrard’s remarks were notably stern, especially considering that the Mexican government has often wavered in its responses to Trumpian tactics. When Donald Trump was still a candidate, then President Enrique Peña Nieto invited him to Mexico City and treated him, in effect, like a head of state, despite the fact that he had insulted Mexicans in the very moment that he announced his campaign. Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was sworn in, last December, he has made a number of concessions to Trump, most recently in May, when Trump threatened to impose tariffs of up to twenty-five per cent on all Mexican goods unless Mexico agreed to implement several policies designed to curb the flow of Central American migrants into the United States. A negotiating team led by Ebrard averted the tariffs, pledging to deploy the national guard throughout Mexico’s territory and let migrants stay there while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed in the United States. Within a month, the number of individuals apprehended at the southern border dropped by almost thirty per cent.
This strategy of eluding confrontation has continued to shape Mexico’s stance toward Trump. Because the United States is Mexico’s largest trading partner and both countries’ economies are closely intertwined, yielding can seem like less of a moral predicament than a necessary condition. Faced with vitriol, threats to close the southern border, or even U.S. agents firing tear gas into Mexico, authorities have consistently attempted to limit a fallout between both countries. It’s a herculean task, but one that inhibits much strategizing. “Everything has turned into an emergency situation,” Alexandra Délano, a professor of global studies at the New School, told me. “Mexicans are failing to look into the roots of the anti-immigrant sentiment and asking ourselves, Where does this lack of understanding, these xenophobic acts, and this willingness to use migrants as a political scapegoat come from?”
Saturday’s shooting was the deadliest attack against Hispanics in modern U.S. history. The gunman settled on El Paso precisely because of its Hispanic heritage—the city is eighty per cent Latino—and drove more than six hundred miles for the sole purpose of slaying Mexicans. “The reason why we all feel caught by surprise is because El Paso is one of the safest and most binational cities in the United States,” Martha Bárcena, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, told me. Six of the Mexican nationals who lost their lives on Saturday came from the border states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Two had retired in El Paso. One was in town to pick up her daughter at the airport, and another ran into the store for a quick errand, while her family waited in the Walmart parking lot. Minutes before the first shots were fired, an unsigned manifesto titled “The Inconvenient Truth” surfaced online. Its author refers to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” in total disregard for the fact that the presence of Hispanics predates the state’s existence. And its language echoes that of a President who cast Mexicans as “rapist and criminals” and who, at a recent rally, when a member of the crowd claimed that only bullets could “stop” migrants, simply chuckled.
Past New Yorker coverage of mass shootings and the battle over gun control.
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The events in El Paso have seemingly emboldened the Mexican authorities to readdress the terms of their relationship with the Trump Administration. “We’re talking guns, the border, and immigration—the most sensitive issues between the two countries,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City, told me. “Words may kill, but gun use in the United States, which we’ve come to accept as if it were the law of gravity, is all the more lethal.” Fully addressing these issues will require a debate around the responsibilities that each country bears. Weak gun laws are a clear example of how a predicament, which originates in the United States, can have transnational implications. Mexicans living in the United States are as exposed to the lethality of guns as any American, but those living in Mexico are exposed to the estimated two hundred thousand weapons that get smuggled across the border into their country every year.
It’s unclear whether Mexican authorities will be able to follow through on the legal actions they have outlined. “There is always a gap between what is politically convenient and what is legally viable,” Ximena Medellín, a law professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, told me. The Mexican government would first have to prove that the shooting violated Mexico’s terrorism laws, only to face limited prospects for an extradition if U.S. prosecutors seek to impose the death penalty. According to Medellín, Mexico’s involvement in the U.S. investigation is unlikely given that American authorities have already launched a criminal case against the gunman and pressed charges for the same crimes laid out by the Mexican government. “It would be wiser to deepen our mutual security and intelligence treaties,” Medellín said. “Mexico should seek out to its partners in Congress and across the government, who have proven that the United States is much more than a bad Presidency.”
In the realm of politics, there is more Mexico can do to serve as a counterweight to Trump’s discourse. The country’s dependency on its northern neighbor can seem a deterrent, but it should also be a reminder of mutual reliance. “Grandstanding is no way to respond to Trump, and in diplomacy you should never fight flatulence with more flatulence,” Arturo Sarukhán, who served as Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 to 2013, told me. “But by constantly seeking to bend backwards and appease Trump, and in the process signalling weakness and an unwillingness to draw red lines or speak up when needed, Mexico will only embolden President Trump to continue to ambush the relationship with ultimatums and unilateral decisions.”
Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. can also confer a political cost on the President’s attempts to treat them as second-class citizens. The Pew Research Center recently estimated that in the next election, and for the first time in the United States’ history, Hispanics will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate. Although the numbers vary by state, a majority of the thirty-two million eligible Hispanic voters are of Mexican descent. If history has not served as a strong enough reality check, perhaps ballots will. As Bárcena said, “Mexicans play a part in the past, the present, and the future of the United States.”