BAD NEIGHBOR POLICY
Meet The Mexicans Who Think Mexico Will Pay For ‘The Wall’
With so little faith in their government’s promises, many in Mexico believe Mexicans may indeed end up paying for a wall intended to keep them out of the U.S.
TIJUANA, Mexico— There seems to be little consensus in the raging binational debate over the issue of who will pay for the “big, beautiful border wall” that incoming President Donald Trump has promised the American people.
After months of insisting that “Mexico will pay for the wall”—a claim that three living Mexican presidents have resoundingly and repeatedly discredited—Trump now says that the United States will likely front the construction cost, which Mexico will later “reimburse.” That is, pending approval from Congress.
There has been much ado about whether or not it is possible for the United States to force Mexico to pay for a wall that it does not want, nor feel is necessary.
But the short answer echoes the campaign slogan that President Barack Obama, now in his final days as POTUS, rode into the White House on: “Yes, we can.”
Whether through taxes placed on outgoing remittances as Trump has previously suggested; or by pulling away from trade agreements that would currently restrict the imposition of new tariffs on imported Mexican goods, as he has repeatedly promised to do with NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement; or in combination with increased visa fees and tolls on international bridges; Mexico could certainly be forced to pick up the check for the proposed border wall.
Speaking to Mexicans south of the border in Tijuana this week, it is clear that most are not buying Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s assertion on Wednesday that “Mexico—of course—will not pay” for the wall.
Nor do they believe the statements made by his predecessor, former President Felipe Calderón, who told CNBC that “Mexican people, we are not going to pay any single cent for such a stupid wall!” Nor the words of his predecessor, former president Vicente Fox, who told Jorge Ramos of Univision, “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall.”
Walking along the looming, ever-present border wall that already divides the violence-afflicted city of Tijuana from “America’s finest city,” San Diego, every Mexican I spoke to inevitably offered the same response when asked, “Who will pay for ‘The Wall’?”
“Mexico,” more than a dozen people said, one after another. Indeed, not one believed in Mexico’s ability to stand behind its government’s reiterated promise.
Resoundingly, they cited lack of confidence in the current administration, and fears of what would happen if Mexico attempted to somehow resist paying for the wall.
Some noted that even U.S. companies looking to expand into Mexico—like Ford, which announced the cancellation of a $1.6 billion manufacturing plant in northern Mexico last week—are being forced to bend to the president-elect’s will, before he has even taken office.
“If the United States says Mexico is going to pay for the wall, then Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Period,” said 38-year-old Terán Palomares, who manages a seafood restaurant overlooking the border fence in Tijuana. “Mexico is terrified of the U.S. and its power, and even more worried about any economic repercussions that could come from refusing to pay.
“Even if the final cost is disguised in some way—as an increase in foreign debt, or something—and isn’t just a lump sum from the Mexican government, Mexico will pay for it,” Palomares continued.
Trump suggested as much during his news conference on Wednesday. “Mexico in some form ... will reimburse us for the cost of the wall,” he said, “whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment,” he added, noting that the latter is unlikely.
On the streets of Tijuana, a local police officer stepped in to offer his opinion.
“Just watch. We’ll fold first,” the cop said, referencing the poker play that often follows a failed bluff.
“Mexico, to avoid problems with its neighbor, will definitely pay for the wall,” said Miguel Angél Martínez, who patrols the beach area where the border fence begins, extending into the Pacific at its westernmost point. “I have zero doubt about that.
“We aren’t about to go to war over this, not even a trade war,” the officer added matter-of-factly. “Before we know it we’ll be paying for the wall, in one way or another.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Mauro Villalobos, who sells fish soup by the sea that flows freely through the rusty, steel border fence, agreed.
“The [Mexican] government doesn’t care what we think anyway,” Villalobos said, noting the country’s violent opposition this week to a 20 percent increase in gas prices, and what little good has come from the people’s protests against the government’s decision. “They can force anything they want on the people and we can’t or won’t do anything about it.
“We never do,” he said. “We never will.”
Trump, who has often stated his disdain for NAFTA, said during his press conference on Wednesday that Mexico’s “so smart” politicians are “taking advantage of the United States.”
“We shouldn’t have allowed that to happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen anymore.”
But speaking to common Mexicans south of the border, most felt that Trump’s words politely—if not duplicitously—give Mexico’s political class too much credit. Most, in fact, found the praise laughable.
The lack of confidence in Mexico’s ability to assert its sovereignty and govern in the country’s best interest—following trying years of political corruption scandals, international scorn over forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, and a plummeting currency value, which hit a new historic low against the dollar on Wednesday following Trump’s news conference—has left many feeling defeated and thoroughly disgruntled with the country’s political leaders.
“Even if we disagree with everything Trump says, at least he is being honest, unlike our president,” said Palomares, the restaurant manager. “Even if he turns out to be like a Hitler, Trump is—at least as far as we know—not yet a liar.”
Palomares is not alone in his disdain for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose approval rating has sunk below 25 percent in recent months to the lowest seen in Mexico in more than two decades, according to The Guardian. But, like most I spoke to, he made it very clear that he is by no means a Trump fan.
On Wednesday, following Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, Mexican journalist Javier Risco, who hosts a nightly newscast for El Financiero-Bloomberg and is quick to poke fun at Mexico’s too-often corrupt politicians, ran a Twitter poll, asking his social media followers, “Who has more credibility—Donald Trump or Peña Nieto?”
Two hours later, 84 percent of the more than 3,500 respondents said “Donald Trump.”
Though by no means controlled or scientific, the poll at least serves to gauge the gut-reaction instinct of Mexican social media users and their mistrust of the Mexican president and his allies, as well as the people’s opinion of how willing their country’s leaders would be to defy the economic whims and demands of their American counterparts.
I asked Risco if he would run another poll on Thursday, curious to know how his nearly 160,000 Twitter followers would respond when posed the question: “Who is going to pay for the wall?”
And when he did, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said “Mexico.”
Some who responded that the U.S. would pay qualified that statement by agreeing with Trump that the U.S. will pay first, but Mexico, in the end, will foot the bill. Or, as Trump recently tweeted: “Any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!”
The response Risco received online, we agreed—though interesting—was far more conservative than what we would have expected, and more trusting of the administration than the responses I received from the rain-soaked Mexicans I spoke to on Thursday, standing in the shadow of the existing double border fence in Tijuana.
One young man named Eliseo, who let me sit with him under a leaking sheet of corrugated metal while he knotted handmade bracelets, briefly entertained the thought that perhaps the neighboring countries could split the cost of the wall. “They pay for material, and we provide labor,” Eliseo suggested, before quickly correcting himself. “It wouldn’t be fair either way. And, in any case, the wall is stupid, no matter who pays for it.”
Oblivious to tariffs, taxes, and the threat of a trade war, what Eliseo knows is a small-scale, coin-based, cash economy. Sometimes, he said, he stands at the border fence dividing Mexico from the U.S., in the area called Friendship Park—where separated friends and families often reunite, standing on either side of the border fence. There, he sells his handmade bracelets to Americans and Mexicans alike, who stand on either side of the border fence and pay cash.
The wall, for him, looms high, but is just another on a list of barriers.
In Mexico, the deafening voices of protesters are rarely truly heard, and the political class continues to exert its will unimpeded by the complaints of its citizens.
The social fallout that followed a controversial pre-election visit to Mexico from Donald Trump at the end of August—an invitation that was also extended to, and declined by, Hillary Clinton—was resounding and severe, and just one in a litany of scandals faced by President Peña Nieto in 2016.
After resounding public disapproval over the rushed and ill-conceived invitation—during which meeting the finer details of “The Wall” were allegedly not discussed —the Mexican president saw no other option than to accept the resignation of then-finance minister and close Peña Nieto ally, Luis Videgaray.
But even that concession has proven to be very short-lived.
Videgaray, who has admitted to a pre-existing relationship with Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with other members of the president-elect’s transition team, was widely labeled “the architect” of the disastrous Trump visit.
But, for all that was worth, last week the shifting status of Videgaray within Peña Nieto’s administration ended with a paradoxical appointment as the man who caused—in his own words—a moment of “profound crisis” and public indignation in Mexico was appointed by Peña Nieto to take over the post of foreign minister.
It gets worse.
During his swearing in earlier this month, Videgaray again drew criticism from the people of Mexico. “I’m not a diplomat,” he said, before airing a short list of what were not perceived to be qualifications for the job. “With all my heart, and humility, I say: I’m here to learn from you.”
He added that he would be a team player “in this moment when Mexico needs us all more than ever,” and as the country faces “an enormous challenge”—not the least of which is Donald Trump’s upcoming inauguration.
Mexico came together to swiftly ridicule Videgaray for saying he “came to learn” while incongruously accepting his new post as secretary of foreign affairs mere months after allegedly masterminding Mexico’s worst foreign relations gaffe in recent memory.
I asked a young Canadian couple seated near the border wall which country they would place their bets on to absorb the multi-billion-dollar border bill. But they—in stereotypically Canadian form—chose to stay out of the conversation. “We’ll see what happens,” they agreed.
One American retiree, however, offered his blunt opinion on Thursday: “It’s your responsibility to keep your neighbor’s cattle out of your yard,” he volunteered—a fact that is largely true in many states.
The porous southern border, which Trump referred to on Wednesday as “an open sieve,” remains highly permeable—with guns and money flowing south, and drugs and people flowing north. Finding sophisticated methods of thwarting the wall, however, has been a constant, ongoing, and evolving task for lone-wolf smugglers and organized criminal networks alike.
In this dispute between neighbors, however, “cattle” could mean anything from narco-submarines and drone-loads of drugs, to people crossing the border through warrens of underground tunnels. Or, perhaps, “cattle” could refer to the southbound flow of guns and cash fueling Mexico’s decade-long drug war.
In either instance, the simple metaphor of a fence between friendly neighbors falls apart. Because people—moving drugs, guns, cash, and other people—are, of course, quite clever, and not cows.
Cattle, after all, can’t fly drones or bribe notoriously malleable border authorities.
In answering this week’s raging debate question of who will pay for the wall if it is erected, my money—like many in Mexico—is on Mexico. Any resistance or alternative seems unlikely.
And any significant backtracking from President-Elect Donald “nobody builds walls better than me” Trump, seems highly unlikely at this point.