TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was reluctantly prepared to slap retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods if negotiators in Washington had failed to strike a deal, addressing a boisterous celebratory rally Saturday in the border city of Tijuana.
The president’s comments came shortly after his foreign minister and chief negotiator, Marcelo Ebrard, told the rally the country had emerged from the high-stakes talks that avoided U.S. tariffs on Mexico’s exports with its “dignity intact.”
López Obrador said that as an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, he opposes retaliation but had been prepared to impose tariffs on U.S. goods. “As chief representative of the Mexican state I cannot permit that anyone attacks our economy or accept an unjust asymmetry unworthy of our government.”
The rally in Tijuana, a short walk from the border, was originally scheduled as an act of solidarity in the face of President Donald Trump’s threat to impose a 5% tariff on Mexico’s exports if it did not stem the flow of Central American migrants crossing its territory toward the U.S.
But after Mexican and U.S. officials reached an accord late Friday that calls on Mexico to crackdown on migrants in exchange for Trump backing off his threat, officials here converted the rally into a celebration.
Ebrard, who helped negotiate the deal, said when he gave the president his report, he told López Obrador: “There are no tariffs, Mr. President, we emerged with our dignity intact.”
López Obrador has said consistently that Mexico’s immigration policy will be guided by respect for human rights. How that is integrated with the more proactive enforcement Mexico has promised Trump is yet to be seen.
“We take advantage of being here in Tijuana to say to the people of the United States once more that we do not harbor any intention nor will we harbor any intention to harm them, and we are resolved to collaborate with them in all areas, especially on the concern spurred by the growth of the migratory flow to their country,” he said.
“At the same time, we ask for their understanding because the migratory phenomenon doesn’t come from nowhere, it comes from the material needs and the insecurity in the Central American countries and in marginalized sectors and regions of Mexico, where there are human beings who need to set out on a pilgrimage to mitigate their hunger and their poverty or to save their lives.”
A series of speakers at the government-organized gathering spoke of the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and applauded Mexico’s negotiating team. The rally had the feeling of a campaign event with paraphernalia from López Obrador’s ruling Morena party spread throughout the crowd.
The event was held in an intersection of Tijuana’s gritty downtown surrounded by pharmacies and currency exchange shops. Prostitutes lined the street a block away from the stage filled with dignitaries.
Lopez Obrador spoke of the long and intertwined histories of the two countries, noting that they “are protagonists in the largest demographic exchange in the world.”
Tijuana residents at the rally said they supported the terms of the agreement. But residents just a block away expressed concern the deal could mean more asylum seekers having to wait in Tijuana and other Mexican border cities for the resolution of their cases in the U.S. That process can take months or even years.
Angelica López, 41, has worked at a U.S. assembly plant in Tijuana that makes motors of all kinds for more than 20 years. The threatened tariffs would have directly impacted her family’s well-being, she said.
“Honestly, we were worried,” she said. “That’s how we eat, how we provide for the family, our home.”
As for the possibility that it means more Central American migrants have to wait out their asylum process in Tijuana, López noted that she had arrived in Tijuana as an economic migrant from another part of Mexico.
“The opportunities are for everyone, we simply support one another as human beings.”
But a block away, masseuse Omar Luna, said he believed many of the Central American migrants waiting in Tijuana were not there to work and were causing problems.
“This part affects us a little,” he said. “A lot of them don’t come to work, they’re criminals, (but) not all of them.”
Critics of the deal in Mexico say that other than a vague reiteration of a joint commitment to promote development, security and growth in Central America, the agreement focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and says little about the root causes driving the surge in migrants seen in recent months.
The deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops appears to be the key commitment in what was described as “unprecedented steps” by Mexico to ramp up enforcement, though Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said that had already been planned and was not a result of external pressure.
Another key element of the deal is that the United States will expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP. According to Mexican immigration authorities, since January there have been 10,393 returns by migrants to Mexico while their cases wend their way through U.S. courts.
Observers said a concern is that if the MPP rolls out on a mass scale along the United States’ entire southern border, it could overwhelm Mexican border cities.