MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s president has compared the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign to that of the rise of Hitler. Trump, in turn, has repeatedly called Mexican immigrants “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.”
The tone was markedly different on Wednesday when Trump flew into Mexico City for a closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to “build, starting now, a healthy bilateral relationship,” as the U.S. Republican Party in Mexico said in a statement.
President Peña Nieto and Trump, moments after the meeting, held a joint press conference, in which Peña Nieto said he hoped the next president of the U.S. will work with Mexico to construct a “strategic alliance” based on “mutual respect.”
Both Trump and Peña Nieto were mute on the matter of the likely impossible border wall that catapulted the New York businessman to the Republican nomination—and were decidedly silent on who would pay for it.
On the subject of the wall—an elephant in the room of as-of-yet undetermined height—Trump responded to one of the few questions allowed at the press conference: “We didn’t discuss who will pay for the wall.”
“We’re saving that discussion for a later date,” he added, somewhat cryptically.
“There have been misunderstandings or affirmations that unfortunately hurt and affected Mexicans in their perceptions of his candidacy, which I have been completely respectful of,” Peña said, moments after the meeting. “The Mexican people have been offended by comments that have been made, but I am sure that [Trump’s] genuine interest is building a relationship that will allow us to give our societies better well-being.”
At one of the most heated points in recent memory for binational discourse, it would seem that there is little room for common ground between the Mexican president and his hopeful counterpart—but for their mutual taste in prominent pompadours.
“Trump’s unpopularity in Mexico is comparable to only that of Peña Nieto so I’m not sure what sort of compromise or consensus they are hoping to reach,” Alejandro Hope, prominent security analyst and the former head of Mexico’s intelligence agency (CISEN), told The Daily Beast. “It makes no sense.”
Yet the last-minute trip was announced and confirmed yesterday by President Peña Nieto and Donald Trump via Twitter. For most of the country, however—politicians, pundits, and regular people—you could not find a more disliked pair to team up to discuss the interests and prospects for either country.
“Although you may have been invited, know that you are not welcome,” former first lady and Mexican presidential candidate Margarita Zavala tweeted after the reunion was announced. “Mexicans have dignity, and we reject your hate speech.”
A smattering of Mexican citizens and journalists gathered in Mexico City today to protest the visit, carrying handwritten signs that read “Trump, out! Peña, out!”
Even former President Vicente Fox, who has been a vocal Trump opponent, chimed in. “Trump not welcome in Mexico, not by me nor the 130 millions Mexicans,” he tweeted. “Mexico is not yours to play with, show some respect.”
The promise of civilized discourse was off to a rather petty start on Wednesday as Trump took to Twitter to address the controversial meeting. “Former President Vicente Fox, who is railing against my visit to Mexico today, also invited me when he apologized for using the ‘f bomb,’” Trump tweeted hours before the meeting was set to begin.
“I invited you to come and apologize to all Mexicans,” Fox responded. “Stop lying!”
Mexico and Mexicans—the topics on which Trump has been, controversially, most vocal, and which his supporters have been most incensed about—have been particularly offended by Trump’s claims that Mexico is “is not our friend,” and is “not sending their best people.”
“They’re rapists,” he infamously said as he began his campaign in June 2015, in a speech announcing his presidential run. “Some, I assume, are good people.”
President Peña Nieto insisted during Wednesday’s conference that Mexicans in the United States “are people that respect family, respect community life, and respect the law. As such, Mexicans deserve everyone’s respect.”
Trump’s comments on immigration policy have been repeatedly perceived as xenophobic, divisive, and factually incorrect.
But then there’s also the matter of “the wall.”
“We’re gonna get the wall built, and it’s gonna be built right,” Trump insists. “Mexico’s going to pay for the wall, and they are going to be happy about it.”
But his claim has been heavily refuted throughout the year by the country’s two most recent former leaders. “The Mexican people, we are not going to pay any single cent for such a stupid wall,” said former President Felipe Calderon.
“I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall,” his predecessor Vicente Fox declared. “He should pay for it. He’s got the money.”
Trump, who originally claimed he could build the wall for $4 billion, has since increased his estimate to as much as “maybe 12 billion, depending”—an estimate that experts have repeatedly refuted, considering it conservative to point of ludicracy.
Details about the actual construction of a wall have been vague, and many hope his promises of a physical barrier between the two countries made of “hardened concrete, rebar, and steel” will amount to no more than an unfulfilled campaign platform.
Intricate tunnels—like those used by Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to escape from a federal maximum security prison last year—drone drops, and catapults, are among the increasingly clever illegal border crossing and smuggling methods being employed by Mexican traffickers and drug cartels. Any of those methods could thwart the proposed multibillion-dollar wall—not to mention the human factor, like corruptible U.S and Mexican officials who contribute to the porousness of the border.
Yet the wall—which gets higher with each campaign speech, and “got 10 feet taller” when ex-President Fox dropped the “f-bomb”—continues to be a contentious issue, seemingly worthy of serious debate. Comedian John Oliver was quick to point out that Trump’s “brilliant plan” did not require a criminal mastermind, but could also be foiled by “mankind’s third invention.”
“There’s no ladder going over [the wall]. If they ever get up there they’re in trouble, ’cause there’s no way to get down,” said Trump.
“Maybe a rope,” he conceded.
After the meeting, Trump headed to Phoenix, Arizona, for an inflammatory immigration speech.
“Any attempt Trump makes at moderating his tone while in Mexico will be completely undone after his speech in Phoenix,” security analyst Hope said as the meeting was under way. “What exactly are Peña Nieto and Trump hoping to achieve with this meeting, beyond suggesting that someone pay for the half the wall? The whole thing is absurd.”
As for President Peña Nieto, the meeting follows a string of recent embarrassments for the presidency, including an explosive report by Aristegui Noticias on Aug. 21 alleging that Peña Nieto plagiarized a third of his law school thesis from as many as 10 different sources, lifting 20 paragraphs word-for-word.
Two weeks ago, the Mexican president was forced to apologize to the country for the so-called White House scandal, in which a favored Mexican contractor built a sprawling multimillion-dollar mansion for former soap opera star and first lady Angelica Rivera.
Peña Nieto wound up appointing his personal friend, bureaucrat Virgilio Andrade, to head the anti-corruption force tasked with investigating the allegations. Andrade then determined—to the surprise of no one—that the president had been involved in no wrongdoing.
Calls for Peña Nieto’s resignation have been repeated and resounding, following the multiple corruption scandals, incendiary protests over education reforms involving teachers and their unions in central Mexico, and violent fallout over several state-sponsored massacres—including that of 43 teaching students who by the government’s own account were abducted by authorities, delivered into the hands of bloodthirsty cartel operatives, and systematically incinerated in a garbage dump in the troubled state of Guerrero almost two years ago.
“The idea that this pair can reach some kind of plan together for healthy communication between the two countries is crazy,” a young political science student, Mariana Hernández, said in Mexico City. “For, I think, most of us, both these men represent the worst of what our countries have to offer the international community.”
Thursday, Peña Nieto was expected to address the nation.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton summarized the common sentiment on both sides of the border. “Getting countries to work together takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults by dropping in for a few hours, then flying home,” she tweeted.