The Texas native who heads the Border Trade Alliance said he sees little cause for concern leading up to Mexico’s December inauguration of its next president, despite worldwide concerns about the country’s direction following this summer’s election.
San Antonio native Nelson Balido, president of the Border Trade Alliance and a Gov. Rick Perry appointee on the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board, recently met with Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s transition team in Mexico City. The former governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto, a member of the country’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, garnered roughly 38 percent of the votes cast during Mexico’s July 1 election. He has been adamant that his ascension to Los Pinos, the presidential palace, will not mark a shift to the PRI of last century. The party’s iron-fisted, 71-year reign — which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 — was marked with allegations of corruption and cronyism.
In August, Peña Nieto was named the official presidential winner by the country’s elections commission, the Instituto Federal Electoral, after second-place finisher Andrés Manuel López Obrador challenged the results of the election. López Obrador alleged that the PRI bought or coerced votes. López Obrador, formerly of Mexico’s progressive alliance, which included the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Labor Party, sought to have the election results nullified, but the commission dismissed his claims.
Peña Nieto recently raised some concern after naming several former members of his gubernatorial staff to his transition team, leading some analysts and PRI opponents to wonder whether his decision to surround himself with familiar names indicated a return to the old guard.
Balido said the criticism is overblown.
“When Bush went up, he took his buddies. When Obama went up, he took his buddies,” Balido said. “You have to take folks that you can trust and work with, so I think those are just comments of desperation.”
Balido said he doesn't foresee a major shift from current trade policies, which have led to a steady increase in trade between the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think they are right on and very much understand the border and the opportunities that the border can bring to accentuate business with the United States and especially Texas,” Balido said after meeting with Arnulfo Valdivia, Peña Nieto’s coordinator of foreign affairs. Valdivia served with Peña Nieto when the president-elect was governor of Mexico.
Despite Mexico’s raging cartel war, which analysts and media say has resulted in anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 homicides, the Mexican economy remains one of the world’s largest, and trade with the United States flourishes.
Mexico remains the United States’ No. 3 trading partner, with trade between the two at an estimated $287 billion through the first seven months of 2012, according to WorldCity, which tracks global trade patterns. The customs districts of Laredo and El Paso remain the country’s No. 1 and No. 2 trading destinations, respectively — the main reason Mexico is Texas' leading trading partner. Through the same time period, Laredo’s trade with Mexico rose 13.97 percent to $133 billion compared with the first seven months of 2011. El Paso’s trade increased 15.76 percent to $50.9 billion. The countries’ top three exports and imports are oil, motor vehicle parts and computer parts.
Much of the focus internationally on Peña Nieto has been on security initiatives and how he will quell the ongoing violence, which has risen steadily since outgoing President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006 and launched an unprecedented war on organized crime.
But Peña Nieto has focused on economic issues, including considering energy and labor reform, and he has discussed privatizing the nation’s petroleum giant, PEMEX. Balido said he was impressed with the attention the president-elect paid to possible infrastructure projects at Mexican ports of entry.
“They want to streamline and give true value to the trusted shipper programs, give true value to the trusted traveler programs, not just everybody pile in and funnel in to the bridge,” Balido said, referring to components of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Free and Secure Trade, or FAST, initiative. Under FAST, commercial carriers who have completed background checks have access to expedited inspections at the nation’s ports.
Balido said there was also some consideration of what he called “Merida 2.0” a reference to the current Plan Mérida, a 2006 agreement signed by President George W. Bush that pledged about $1.5 billion to the governments of Haiti, Central America and Mexico to aid in crime fighting there. Mérida 2.0 would be a second infusion of aid to those countries.
“They are at least talking about it, and we need to support it, but we need to do more,” he said. “I think it should be a lot more because these folks are a baseball throw away, and we are economically connected to them.”
While Mexicans are considering a future under Peña Nieto, its current administration is lauding the recent high-profile arrest of one of its most notorious criminals.
But the arrest last Wednesday of Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, one of the Gulf cartel’s top leaders, in the state of Tampico is likely to spark an uptick in violence leading up to Mexico’s inauguration, analysts say.
Costilla, who goes by the moniker “El Coss,” had been wanted by the San Antonio FBI office, which offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the Matamoros native’s capture. It’s been hailed as a possible death knell for the Gulf Cartel, which was once one of the nation’s most successful criminal gangs.
“Not to demean their efforts, but I see it as a hollow effort if they just parade this success without the follow through,” said David Ramirez, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who retired as an assistant special agent in charge at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “If you take down a head like this, the head of an organization, or one of the top capos, there is lack of communication, a lack of direction, lack of leadership so that is what law enforcement should take advantage of.”
Ramirez said he expects an overt effort by Calderón before he leaves office to try to achieve more success on that front, which could lead to an increase in violence across the country.
“Because of a new administration coming in, they want to take advantage of any leads or information or any enforcement efforts they can do before the next administration," Ramirez said. "Just like our system."