MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Days after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stood on U.S. soil and likened the American’s treatment of migrants to Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews.
That was then.
Since assuming the Mexican presidency 14 months ago, the leftist Lopez Obrador has thrown huge resources behind Trump’s goal of cutting illegal migration from Central America. And he speaks publicly of the “friendship” binding him to his U.S. counterpart.
Threatened with tariffs by Trump, Lopez Obrador has sent thousands of National Guard troops to police Mexico’s borders. The result, according to Washington, is a more than 70% drop in migrant detentions on the U.S.-Mexico frontier since last May.
Since Lopez Obrador agreed in June to tighten the border, tensions have eased. But Trump still says Mexico must pay for his planned border wall and he has used ongoing gang violence to press for more cooperation on migration and security.
“He’s like a matador facing Trump who’s like a bull that charges you at will,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a historian at the Colegio de Mexico and friend of Lopez Obrador.
“It’s against the nature of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to be so polite, but he doesn’t have another (option).”
A history buff fond of making references to foreign invasions of Mexico, Lopez Obrador must walk a fine line to keep Trump at bay while protecting his image as a pugnacious patriot reclaiming his country for the poor and downtrodden.
That Lopez Obrador would help a U.S. leader widely reviled in Mexico for describing its people as rapists and drug-runners during his 2015-16 election campaign, sits uneasily with both supporters on the left and critics on the right.
“(It’s) submission and political obedience, not free self-determination,” said Enrique Vidal of human rights group Fray Matias de Cordova, who watched the National Guard rounding up a caravan of Central American migrants on Mexico’s southern border last week to avert a fresh conflict with Trump.
Critics of Lopez Obrador say yielding to Trump has only encouraged him to demand more. Some argue Mexico should have called Trump’s bluff on his tariffs threat because of the damage it would also have done to U.S. economic interests.
In February 2017, Lopez Obrador addressed Mexicans in Los Angeles and likened the Trump administration to the regime of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler for its attitude to migrants.
But his National Guard is now widely viewed as a de facto wall against migrants reaching the U.S. border, prompting Trump to claim this week that his border wall “is ultimately and very nicely being paid for by Mexico.”
Lopez Obrador sidestepped the question when asked to respond to Trump at a news briefing on Wednesday, casting criticism of his migration policy as an attempt by adversaries to draw him into a dispute with the United States.
“Listen: love and peace, they can try and prod us all they like, but we won’t take the bait,” he said.
Pollsters say the Mexican leader is getting away with his volte-face so far, taking the public with him on his tougher approach to migrants, whom he has depicted as victims of unscrupulous traffickers.
A July survey in newspaper Reforma showed 55% of Mexicans favoured deporting Central American migrants back home.
Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Tom Brown