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Mexico’s Presidential Candidates Find Common Rival Amid Trump’s Border Plan

Mexican Sen. Laura Rojas stood at a lectern in the Senate chamber on Wednesday and pointed two microphones toward her chin. She received cheers as she ticked off a list of demands for President Donald Trump:

That he respect the people of Mexico.

That he stop the militarization of the border.

That Mexico stop helping the United States fight trans-national crime until Trump starts showing respect.

The final demand drew the biggest applause.

Rojas, the chairwoman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, had been watching from Mexico City as Trump the candidate said Mexico sent its worst to the United States, as he repeatedly threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, and this week as he threatened to retaliate against Mexico for not stopping a caravan of Honduran migrants legally traveling through Mexico. But it was Trump’s plan to send troops to the border that pushed her to write the resolution, Rojas said.

 “It was absolutely necessary to say something,” Rojas said.

Trump’s decision to send the National Guard to the border drew sharp rebukes from across Mexico’s political spectrum this week. The country’s four presidential candidates put aside their differences to rally against a common rival. The Senate unanimously approved Rojas’ proclamation. And President Enrique Peña Nieto made a national address saying Mexico would not cooperate at the expense of its sovereignty.

Trump has been insulting Mexico and Mexicans since he was candidate, Rojas said. And she and other senators want him to show respect. 

"He must stop conducting the relationship with the Mexican government based on lies,” she said.

Rojas is referring to, for example, Trump characterizations via Twitter this week that NAFTA is Mexico’s cash-cow. An analysis from the Mexico Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, shows 5 million jobs across the United States depend on cross-border trade. Mexico imports more from the United States than China does.

“All the time, he’s threatening and blackmailing, and that makes it impossible to cooperate and to build a constructive relationship between two countries that are supposed to be not only neighbors but allies and partners,” Rojas said.

A few blocks from the Senate in Mexico City on Thursday, one of the four presidential candidates delivered a letter to the American embassy. Margarita Zavala, the only independent in the race, told a gaggle of reporters that all candidates agree on this issue.

“When it comes to defending the dignity of their country, we’ll act together,” Zavala said. She’s more or less correct.

MORE: Troops Are Coming To Border, But Are They Needed? In a rally, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a perennial candidate, told supporters: “We won’t allow any foreign government to turn Mexico into a piñata.”

In a press conference, Ricardo Anaya, who at 39 is the youngest candidate, criticized President Enrique Peña Nieto for not responding more assertively.

“This calls on the Mexican state to action in this issue," said Anaya.

Which changed on Thursday afternoon when Peña Nieto released a video message telling Trump that if he’s frustrated with his country’s congress, he should address them, not the Mexican people.

Peña Nieto was forceful, in comparison to his administration’s so-far diplomatic approach to Trump. Peña Nieto’s administration is likely looking at the long term, said Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush.

“I think they’re playing a long game in terms of the relationship, and I think they’re also playing a longer game in terms of the economics,” Garza said.

Both countries have benefited from NAFTA, Garza said. Plus, the U.S. needs Mexico’s help and vice versa, he said. Both countries are fighting the same threats: terrorism, human trafficking, drugs.

“They are threats that move across and through the region and the only way that we can effectively deal with trans-national threats is through trans-national cooperation,” Garza said.

But how will that cooperation look like?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” said Rojas. “That’s one of the problems, no? With President Trump, we can expect everything, even the unexpected.”

One thing is for sure, Rojas said: Unless Trump shows more willingness to collaborate, he, too, can expect to see less goodwill from Mexico.

Jorge Valencia was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2016 to 2019.