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Border Report: A Former Ambassador Gets Real

May 3, 2021 | ,

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The world recently got an inside view of what the United States’ onetime top diplomat south of the border thinks about U.S.-Mexico relations. And it has gone largely unnoticed.

Christopher Landau, the former American ambassador to Mexico, spoke candidly about his post to fellow diplomats on a call organized by the Council of American Ambassadors two weeks ago. A recording of the call was uploaded to YouTube and, as of Monday morning, amassed 2,000 views.

During the call, Landau spoke openly about American priorities in Mexico, President Donald Trump’s relationship with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, China’s increasing influence south of the border, how American guns arm Mexican cartels, and tensions between Washington D.C. insiders and Mexico City diplomats.

The video should be required viewing for anyone who follows U.S.-Mexico relations. But if you don’t have an hour to spare, the Border Report has a highlight reel for you.

I personally discovered the video through a Twitter exchange between Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina and Mexican journalist Jose Diaz-Briseno. The correspondent from Reforma pulled one of Landau’s quotes that explained how Trump prioritized migration at the expense of every other issue in Mexico.

“[Lopez Obrador] knew that the migration issue was important to President Trump and apart from that we weren’t giving him a hard time on a gazillion other issues,” Landau said. “And I think they kind of understood each other that way.”

Dedina was not impressed. Imperial Beach’s coastline is routinely shut down because of cross-border sewage spills, and the mayor has spent years trying to get the federal governments of both countries to do something about it. He saw Landau’s quote as validation that politicians in Washington don’t care about the issue.

“Clearly we are expendable,” Dedina tweeted. “This is why the United States government has been and is ignoring the Tijuana sewage crisis.”

The top three American priorities in Mexico, said Landau, are “trade, migration and drugs. Not necessarily in that order. They kind of change every day.”

Environmental issues never came up during the hour-long conversation.

Most of the questions during the Q&A portion of the video revolved around Mexican drug cartels. Landau said the cartels “have effective control over large parts” of Mexico – anywhere from 35 to 40 percent.

Those cartels are armed with American guns and funded by drug sales from American consumers.

Landau said the Mexican military is “outgunned” by the cartels.

“One of my concerns as ambassador was to try to address the flow of illegal weapons from our country into Mexico, which allows the cartels to be armed to the teeth,” he said. “We are not talking about little pistols, we’re talking about military-style 50-caliber weapons – the kind you see in Somalia.”

The former ambassador said he respects the Second Amendment, but added that “whatever the right to bear arms means in the United States, there is certainly no Second Amendment right to export arms to another county.”

He criticized previous administrations of both parties for not coming up with a coherent counter-narcotics strategy. Specifically, Landau said the strategy seems to be to arrest our way out of the problem, but it’s been tried for decades and hasn’t worked.

“Drug smuggling will find a way, and just arresting some is not going to solve the problem if there is a trillion-dollar market for this kind of stuff over the border,” he said.

The rest of the questions revolved around China’s growing influence in Mexico and about Lopez Obrador’s domestic policies.

One of the most interesting answers came when Landau was asked about Chinese interests in Mexico. Landau recalled how China is kicking America’s ass when it comes to 5G expansion – not necessarily because Mexico is choosing China over the United States, but because the United States can’t compete with China.

“That was actually one of the worst experiences I had, I have to say, telling Carlos Slim that he should not do 5G with Huawei,” Landau said. “Because I kind of felt like my talking points were, ‘Don’t do 5G with Huawei’ and he said, ‘OK, who do you want me to deal with? You don’t have another 5G alternative.’ My talking points didn’t cover that area.”

Regarding Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, Landau said the leftist populist president has more in common with Trump than people think.

“They both came into office as anti-establishment candidates,” he said. “AMLO formed his own party and Trump basically had a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. They both had that kind of outsider perspective attacking what they called a corrupt domestic elite. And I think they kind of admired each other or they felt a certain sympathy toward each other.”

Since We Do Pay Attention to Cross-Border Sewage …

In their latest story, MacKenzie Elmer and veteran Tijuana-based journalist Vicente Calderon dig into a choice the Environmental Protection Agency needs to make: whether it should invest money to fix the cross-border sewage issue into infrastructure on the Mexican or the U.S. side of the border. Elmer and Calderon break down a complex international issue in a way that is both fun and easy to read.

Just take a look at the first sentence: “If the San Diego-Tijuana region were a human body, it’d have the stomach flu: Bad stuff is coming out of both ends.”

If you need a primer on the Tijuana River sewage saga, we got you. Our latest season of San Diego 101 includes a video that explains the sewage crisis’ origins and what needs to be done to fix it.

Lawson-Remer Floats Migrant Legal Fund

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer proposed a $5 million legal defense fund for migrants held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey wrote.

Unlike criminal court, people in immigration court do not have the right to free legal representation. They only have the right to be represented by an attorney. But it’s on them to find one, pay for one or persuade one to take their care pro-bono. Most people end up representing themselves.

As a reporter, I’ve sat in immigration court rooms and seen teenage migrants who don’t have an elementary school education and primarily speak indigenous languages try to represent themselves in a complex immigration proceeding through a Spanish translator.

It’s not a shock that detained migrants who have legal representation are four times more likely to be released than those without.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on Lawson-Remer’s proposal on May 4.

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