Has the Ambassador in Mexico gone too far, U.S. officials ask?

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, bids farewell after speaking at the ambassador's residence in Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, about the discussions between the two nations on visas for United States DEA agents. and Mexico's controversial energy reform. Mexico has refused to grant more visas to US agents and has proposed limiting the amount of electricity it will buy from gas and renewable power plants operated abroad. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Lorenzo Cordova, president of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), told The New York Times that he delivered a message to the American ambassador in Mexico, Ken Salazar, stating that Lopez Obrador was mounting an all-out assault on the national elections authority, in order to take control of the INE, which has guaranteed democracy in the nation for the last thirty years.

(The New York Times).- But instead of expressing alarm, Salazar took up one of AMLO’s lines of attack, stating that back in 2006, the presidential election had been stolen from him (which is totally false, Lopez Obrador lost that election to Felipe Calderón by a couple of hundred thousand votes in a clean contest).

Salazar has said that he was not convinced that the 2006 election was clean, and he asked Cordova directly “Was there fraud?”

This ambassador’s willingness to question the legitimacy of an election that took place 16 years ago, when Lorenzo Cordova was not even the head of the INE (it was called IFE back then) is the latest example of what several U.S. officials say is a worrying pattern, in which Ken Salazar has contradicted the United States government’s policies in the interests of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

When he was appointed Ambassador back in September 2021, Ken Salazar was instructed by the Biden administration to construct a strong relationship with AMLO in order to advance the White House’s agenda.

As the primary buffer between the United States and record-high flows of migrants, Mexico holds enormous leverage over Joe Biden’s presidency.

In a few words, Salazar’s mission was to protect Mr. Biden’s political future by holding the line on migration with the aid of the Mexican government.

Mr. Salazar has in fact succeeded in getting close to the Mexican president.

But there is growing concern within the Biden administration that the ambassador may have actually compromised U.S. interests in the process, according to more than a dozen current and former officials and analysts.

Apparently, Salazar is playing AMLO’s game to fuel distrust in the country’s democracy; questioning the integrity of a U.S.-funded anticorruption nonprofit that had gone up against the president; causing a political storm by appearing to signal support for a retrograde energy policy, and staying silent as AMLO relentlessly attacks journalists.

Mr. Salazar insists his “direct relationship” with Mr. López Obrador benefits the United States.

But the U.S. government is questioning whether the administration’s soft approach is actually working — or on the contrary, emboldening Mr. López Obrador.

The Mexican leader has pursued an energy agenda that threatens American companies and regularly discredits and personally insults those who question his government.

The economy is cratering, violence continues to rage more than ever and now Mexico — not Central America — has become the biggest source of migrants arriving at the U.S. border.

Lopez Obrador led several leaders in boycotting a major summit hosted by the U.S. in June, embarrassing Mr. Biden on a global stage.

“The ambassador believes he’s close to AMLO,” said Duncan Wood, the vice president of strategy at the Wilson Center. “Is there anything to show for it? I can’t find anything.”

The Biden administration, Mr. Wood said, is “being played by AMLO.”

From the beginning, President Joe Biden has had a harsh relationship with Lopez Obrador, who initially refused to recognize his election victory.

Back in 2018, Donald Trump coerced López Obrador into executing his hard-line immigration policy under the threat of tariffs, and he left the Mexican leader alone to pursue his domestic leftist agenda.

The Biden administration is just as reliant on Mexico for migration enforcement, and Mexico dedicated significant resources to arresting a record number of migrants last year.

President Biden has vowed to pursue a broader agenda in the region, including defending human rights and democracy — without Trump’s heavy-handed tactics.

Mr. Salazar was seen as the perfect man for the job, as American officials assumed the former Democratic senator’s folksy manner would work well with AMLO’s man-of-the-people leadership.

“What we need to do is to address these huge, unprecedented problems together,” Mr. Salazar said. “And you can’t do it if you have an enemy.”

Mr. Salazar meets with Mexico’s leader on a regular basis, securing significant access to the country’s top power broker.

As Mr. López Obrador pursued energy overhauls, the ambassador set up meetings between the Mexican leader and the American companies affected. Mr. Salazar stated that he is making progress on settling disputes affecting more than $30 billion of U.S. investment in Mexico’s energy sector.

Publicly, the Biden administration stands by Mr. Salazar.

“Some of the criticism that is levied at him is because he is engaging so actively with this government, but frankly, he’s doing it to try to advance U.S. interests,” said Juan Gonzalez, Mr. Biden’s top adviser on Latin America.

As for Mr. López Obrador’s claim that the 2006 election was stolen from him, Mr. Gonzalez said: “We recognize the outcome of that election results”.

Mr. Salazar, however, told The New York Times that he was “not aware of the U.S. government line,” and that he still had doubts: “I have been told by many people who watched the vote that night, including people that have no ax to grind, who are very credible people, that there was a fraud.”

Episodes like these have stoked concerns among U.S. officials.

Weeks after Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. energy secretary, flew to Mexico to express concern about the energy changes, Salazar appeared to contradict her message, telling Mexican journalists that “the president is right” to pursue changes to the law.

The comment, which Mr. Salazar said was taken out of context, was marshaled by Mr. López Obrador to signal the ambassador’s support for legislation that would boost Mexico’s state-owned electrical utility and jeopardize billions in U.S. investments.

AMLO has even invited Salazar to join him at his daily news conference, where he takes the stage to attack anyone he considers an adversary — including the U.S. government.

Mr. Salazar wanted to attend, but his staff urged him to reconsider, arguing that standing by Mr. López Obrador during one of his tirades would be risky for the Biden administration.

María Amparo Casar, leader of the nonprofit, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, that investigates graft and is a regular target of Mr. López Obrador’s scorn, was invited to Mr. Salazar’s residence.

Ms. Casar told Salazar that her non-profit organization, which gathers and diffuses data information on Mexico’s cases of corruption is constantly under attack by the Mexican president.

The president had also assailed the U.S. government for funding the group, which was co-founded by a businessman who left the organization to form an opposition movement.

A senior Biden administration official had already told Mr. Salazar that the administration would not pull financing for the organization, said two U.S. officials who were not authorized to speak publicly.

But Salazar told his staff that he “has his doubts”, and had grown suspicious of the group, ordering them to investigate it.

The ambassador told The Times he believed the opposition activism of the group’s founder “created the appearance of impropriety” and said he would “advocate for the funding to be cut” if he found charges of political activity to be credible, which is a clear sign that Salazar is taking on AMLO’s side.

At the meeting, Mr. Salazar grilled Ms. Casar, questioning whether her group was secretly involved in politics. Casar said no, explaining that U.S. government auditors had determined over and over again that the group has never been involved in politics.

“Why should I believe you?” the ambassador then asked Amparo Casar, according to two people familiar with the meeting who asked to remain anonymous.

“The only proof I have is my word,” Ms. Casar answered. The ambassador told her that “this doesn’t smell good,” before abruptly rising and cutting the meeting short.

Mr. Salazar told The Times he had every right to raise “legal and ethical” issues with a recipient of U.S. funding, adding, “She can be lying.”

Mr. Gonzalez told The Times that the American government would continue to fund Ms. Casar’s group. “The policy of the U.S. is clear on this,” he said.

Salazar’s actions to build a positive relationship with Mexico’s president have not been enough to stop him from delivering a humiliating rebuke to Mr. Biden last month.

AMLO repeatedly bashed the United States for not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela to the Summit of the Americas.

Ken Salazar pleaded with him to attend, said a U.S. Embassy official who requested anonymity to avoid reprisal, but López Obrador kept threatening to boycott the event, which he did in the end.

In an effort at diplomacy, the Ambassador paid a visit to Mexico’s most important religious site, La Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the day before the summit was set to begin.

“I pray at the Basilica to the Patroness of the Americas to lift up our leaders to chart a new transformative era for the Americas and the US-Mexico relationship,” Mr. Salazar posted on Twitter.

Mr. López Obrador officially dropped out of the event the next day.

The Yucatan Times
Newsroom



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