U.S. to give Americans COVID-19 vaccines before discussing sharing with Mexico: White House

By Steve Holland and Dave Graham

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Monday downplayed the prospect of sharing coronavirus vaccines with Mexico, saying it is focused first on getting its own population protected against a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

The remarks by White House press secretary Jen Psaki came hours before Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is expected to ask U.S. President Joe Biden to consider sharing some of its COVID-19 vaccine supply.

“The administration’s focus is on ensuring that every American is vaccinated. And once we accomplish that objective we’re happy to discuss further steps,” Psaki said at a White House news conference.

The two leaders are due to hold a virtual meeting later on Monday that is also likely to encompass immigration and trade.

Biden has predicted the United States will have enough supply by late July to inoculate all Americans. U.S. authorities have administered 76.9 million doses to date, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enough for 23% of the population to get the two doses recommended for full protection under the vaccines that have been deployed so far.

Mexico has vaccinated roughly 2.5 million doses so far, enough for about 1% of the population, according to data compiled by Reuters. Officials have been frustrated by bottlenecks in supply and raised concerns that wealthy countries are hoarding vaccines.

According to Reuters reporting, Mexico would aim to pay back Washington once pharmaceutical companies have delivered on their orders.

Mexican magazine Proceso said Lopez Obrador had asked Biden for help on vaccines in January.

“We’d like to get an answer on a request that we’ve already made … about the vaccines,” Lopez Obrador told a regular news conference on Monday. “Provided he’s of the view the matter should be addressed. We must be respectful.”

IMMIGRATION AND ENERGY

Immigration, security, climate change and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal were also likely to feature in talks, said Lopez Obrador, a left-wing nationalist.

Mindful of pressure to curb unlawful immigration, Lopez Obrador said on Saturday he wants Biden to help secure U.S. work permits for Mexicans and Central Americans, saying the United States needed another 600,000-800,000 workers.

On Monday, Lopez Obrador said he wanted to broker an agreement that covered all kinds of workers, including “professionals.”

The two leaders could also discuss Lopez Obrador’s efforts to strengthen a state-run electricity utility, the Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE).

The Mexican president has cast the legislation as a matter of national sovereignty, arguing that past governments skewed the electricity market in favor of private operators.

Business groups have condemned the bill, saying it risks violating the USMCA and endangers Mexico’s renewable energy targets because it puts wind and solar generators at a disadvantage against the CFE, a heavy user of fossil fuels.

(Reporting by Dave Graham, Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and David Alire Garcia; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Giles Elgood and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. drops drug case against Mexican ex-defense minister

By Jonathan Stempel and Daina Beth Solomon

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday granted a U.S. government request to drop drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, a move Mexico said would restore trust in severely strained security cooperation ties.

U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon granted the request at a hearing in Brooklyn, New York after Tuesday’s abrupt announcement by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. case would end.

“Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure, and the old adage ‘a bird in the hand’ comes to mind, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s decision,” the judge said at the hearing.

Cienfuegos, 72, served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, and the case prompted the current government to threaten a review of agreements allowing U.S. agents to operate in Mexico.

Seth DuCharme, the Acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, said his office “stands behind its case” against Cienfuegos, but that its interest in the prosecution was outweighed by the “broader interest” in maintaining cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities.

Appearing in the court, Cienfuegos said he was in agreement with the request to drop charges.

Cienfuegos has signed a removal agreement that would allow his return to Mexico, his lawyer Edward Sapone said. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcel Ebrard said the retired army general could be flown back within days.

Cienfuegos was arrested last month in Los Angeles International Airport, becoming the first Mexican former defense official taken into U.S. custody for drug-related corruption at home. He pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.

But U.S. prosecutors said “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” now outweighed the U.S. government’s interest in continuing to prosecute Cienfuegos, and therefore their case against him should be dismissed.

Ebrard said the arrest had damaged the trust needed for bilateral cooperation fighting drug gangs. He celebrated the decision to drop the case and said it laid a foundation for future cooperation.

Cienfuegos has not been charged in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there. The Mexican government said its case was based entirely on evidence provided by the United States.

Cienfuegos will return to Mexico as a free man, Ebrard said, adding that the attorney general’s office was studying the U.S. evidence and would decide next steps.

U.S. prosecutors accused Cienfuegos of abusing the power of his office to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, while ordering operations against rival gangs.

While in office, Cienfuegos had worked closely with U.S. counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading Mexican figure fighting that country’s drug war.

His arrest, which Mexico had not been warned about, shocked Mexico’s security establishment, where Cienfuegos has maintained close ties.

Following the arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador questioned the work of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in the country, saying they had been close to Cienfuegos for years.

The case set off a flurry of frantic calls between Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, and Mexican officials to calm tensions.

In a statement on Tuesday, Barr and Gertz said the U.S. Department of Justice provided evidence it has gathered to Mexican authorities, and would support their probe.

Cienfuegos’ arrest came 10 months after U.S. prosecutors charged Mexico’s former top public security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, with taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Garcia Luna has pleaded not guilty.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Mexican president sees U.S. election link to migrant caravan

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday said he suspected an ulterior motive behind a caravan of more than 2,000 migrants from Central America that set out just a month before the U.S. presidential election.

Lopez Obrador, who has taken measures against illegal immigration to keep Mexico off U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign agenda, said he suspected the caravan’s departure from Honduras on Thursday was timed to provoke.

“It is very weird, very strange,” the president said at a regular government news conference.

“It’s a matter that I believe is linked to the U.S. election,” he said, adding that he did not have “all the elements” to support his theory.

On Thursday, more than 2,000 migrants, many wearing face masks against the coronavirus, barged past armed Guatemalan troops at the border, with some saying they were seeking to escape poverty exacerbated by the global pandemic.

Pressure has been building in Central America, where months of strict lockdowns have devastated local economies and spread hunger, while restrictions on freedom of movement have slowed traditional flows of immigration toward the United States.

On Friday morning there were signs some caravan members were choosing to return home following threats of consequences from the Mexican and Guatemalan governments and after spending a night in the open because churches and other shelters remain closed because of coronavirus risks.

Guatemala’s government invoked special powers in much of the country on Thursday to give security forces more latitude to break up the group.

Mexico warned of prison sentences of up to 10 years for people who “put in danger of contagion the health of others” in a statement instructing officials to toughen health checks at entry points on the border with Guatemala.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Mexican president to hold bilateral talks with Trump on July 8

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will hold bilateral talks with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on July 8 in Washington, where he will underline his commitment to trade and investment, Mexico’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has not left his country since taking office in December 2018, and paying his first foreign visit to Trump is politically risky because the U.S. Republican president is widely disliked in Mexico.

The Mexican president has described the planned visit, which is intended to celebrate the start of a new North American trade deal on July 1, as a matter of economic necessity.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Lopez Obrador would hold bilateral talks with Trump on the afternoon of July 8. Trilateral matters that include Canada will be on the agenda on the morning of July 9, he added.

Mexico wanted to stress its commitment to trade, investment and social welfare at the Washington summit, Ebrard told a news conference, standing alongside Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador floated the idea of talks in Washington to mark the July 1 start of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is replacing the 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mexico has urged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take part in the meeting, and Ebrard said he expected Canada’s government to detail its plans soon.

So far, Canada had not responded to the invitation to participate in Washington, Lopez Obrador said.

Many Mexicans have held Trump in low regard since he described Mexican migrants as rapists and drug runners in his 2015-16 election campaign and vowed to make Mexico pay for his planned border wall.

He has also made repeated threats against Mexico’s economy to pressure its government to stem illegal immigration.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Gang violence hits Mexican leader’s ratings, U.S. warns of ‘parallel government’

Gang violence hits Mexican leader’s ratings, U.S. warns of ‘parallel government’
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Support for Mexico’s president has fallen some ten percentage points during a surge in gang-related violence, a poll showed on Friday, just as the U.S. ambassador voiced concern about “parallel government” by cartels in parts of the country.

The Nov. 6-11 survey of 1,000 Mexicans for newspaper El Universal showed President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had an approval rating of 58.7%, down from 68.7% in late August. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Although Lopez Obrador’s popularity remains strong compared with many world leaders, nearly one year into his administration, skepticism is growing about his performance on the back of several shocking security lapses to recently roil Mexico.

Last month the president took flak from critics when it emerged security forces had released a son of the notorious kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after heavily-armed cartel gunmen overwhelmed security forces and briefly took control of the northern city of Culiacan.

That criticism was compounded by outrage and condemnation of the government from some U.S. lawmakers when suspected cartel gunmen massacred three mothers and six children of dual U.S.-Mexican nationality in northern Mexico last week.

U.S. President Donald Trump has responded by suggesting Mexico should join the United States to fight the cartels, fueling concerns that the American leader could use gang violence to put pressure on the Mexican government as he has over migration.

Speaking on Thursday, the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City, Christopher Landau, offered a terse assessment of the situation, saying there were parts of Mexico in which drug cartels formed a kind of “parallel government”.

“It can’t be that the territory where they have this kind of power continues to expand across the country,” Landau said on Thursday during an event in the northern city of Monterrey in remarks that were later broadcast on television.

“The future of Mexico is so important that if we don’t fight this now, it’s going to get much worse,” he added.

A dozen years of gang-fueled violence have claimed well over 200,000 lives in Mexico and murders hit record levels last year.

Taking office in December, the veteran leftist Lopez Obrador has pledged to address the root causes of crime and is pursuing a less confrontational approach to pacifying the country.

He quickly created a new militarized police force, or National Guard, to tackle the problem. But at the behest of Trump, thousands of its members have been sent to the borders of Mexico to help contain illegal immigration from Central America.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

‘Robin Hood’ Mexican president says to return stolen wealth to the people

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday he will create a “Robin Hood” institute to return to the people the ill-gotten wealth seized from corrupt politicians and gangsters.

His administration is drawing up a bill to create an independent “Robin Hood” institute “against the corrupt” that would put confiscated goods such as real estate, jewelry and cars into the public’s hands, the president told reporters.

“Let’s quickly return everything to the people that’s been stolen,” he said at his regular morning news conference.

For example, the institute could assign seized homes to municipalities for schools, hospitals or elderly care centers, he said. Assets seized by the government tend to have been ransacked or require expensive upkeep, he noted.

He did not estimate the value of the assets, or offer details on how they would be given back to the people.

A 2017 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development noted that recent studies estimated that Mexico lost between 5 percent and 9 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to corruption annually.

Since taking office in December, veteran leftist Lopez Obrador has rolled out a string of welfare programs for the poor and the elderly, cut salaries for top civil servants and says he is saving public money by eliminating corruption.

Lopez Obrador has shunned the often luxurious trappings of Mexico’s wealthy elites, choosing to fly coach and drive through the capital in a white Volkswagen Jetta.

Immediately upon taking office, he turned over the presidential palace to the public and put his predecessor’s official plane up for sale.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Sharay Angulo; Editing by Dave Graham and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Mexican president says illegal immigration to U.S. ‘is not up to us’

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looks on during a meeting with industry bosses and members of his cabinet to discuss the new administration's policy on the minimum wage at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Phot

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he was committed to helping curb illegal immigration after renewed Twitter criticism by U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, but he suggested it was an issue chiefly for the United States and Central America to address.

Illegal immigration across the U.S. border has caused persistent bilateral tensions ever since Trump launched his bid for the presidency almost four years ago, saying that Mexico was sending rapists and drug runners into the United States.

With initial campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election already underway, Trump sent out a tweet early Thursday that again attacked Mexico over migration.

“Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to our Country,” Trump wrote. “They are all talk and no action. Likewise, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have taken our money for years, and do Nothing.”

Trump again threatened to close the U.S. southern border.

At his regular morning news conference, Lopez Obrador was asked about Trump’s tweet, and said he was focused on addressing the root causes of migration. He repeated that he wanted a cordial relationship with Trump.

“We respect president Trump’s position, and we are going to help. That is, this is a problem of the United States, or it’s a problem of the Central American countries. It’s not up to us Mexicans, no,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

“I just emphasize that migration flows of Mexicans to the United States are very low, a lot lower,” he said. “The Mexican is no longer seeking work in the United States. The majority are inhabitants of our fellow Central American countries.”

Trump’s latest broadside came one day after the United States, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador agreed to conduct joint police operations in Central America to improve border security and tackle illegal immigration.

The three countries account for the bulk of migrants apprehended trying to cross illegally into the United States.

Trump’s remarks also followed calls on social media for a new caravan of migrants to form in Honduras.

Over the weekend, a group of around 1,200 migrants, most of them from Central America, began moving toward the U.S. border from southern Mexico.

(Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)