Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Mexico City

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route To Mexico City, Mexico
May 21, 2014

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the Secretary had had a couple of trips to Mexico planned previously either on his own or with the President or Vice President. He is, obviously, a member of what the Secretary kicked off last – sorry, the Vice President kicked off last September. This will get better as I drink the coffee.

QUESTION: Are we on the record, by the way?

MODERATOR: Background.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This will get better. He was – he is a member of the High-Level Economic Dialogue with the Vice President kicked off last September and the President announced last May.

QUESTION: So this is not his first trip as Secretary?


QUESTION: As Secretary.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He wasn’t able to go. Yes. He was not able to go on those. Basically, there were crises elsewhere.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And so that’s why this is his first trip to Mexico, although he had wanted to do one before.

So as you know, the Pena Nieto government, which has been in power for about a year and a half, has really wanted to balance the relationship moving away from what was an almost entirely security-focused relationship under the previous government of President Calderon to make sure that we emphasized both the security and the economic relationship. And so what you’ve seen over the last 18 months is a real focus on some of the economic components to the relationship: the High-Level Economic Dialogue, which kicked off; the focus over the last 18 months extensively on education, which you’ll see a lot of today and I’ll talk about that in a second; as well as, obviously, the whole slew of economic reforms that the Pena Nieto administration has put in place, including energy reform. And you’ll see some emphasis on that today as well. That’s still in process in Mexico.

Since Pena Nieto took office, they have passed what is about 20-plus years of economic reforms in a year. Pena Nieto came to a pact with the two other parties. This is the PRI, the party that ran Mexico for 71 years before losing power in 2000, came back into office in 2012. The two other parties are the PAN and the PRD. They came to agreement just before his inauguration in what was called the Pacto por Mexico, or the Pact for Mexico, and that was the pact that kept the reforms sort of in place for about a year and they put all those reforms through. Some of them required constitutional changes. Those are still in the process of being implemented although the constitutional changes have been made. They include education reform, labor reform, tax reform, telecommunications reform, energy reform, and political reform, including some forms of reelection which had never been permitted before.

So we’re seeing huge changes, structural changes in Mexico, which as I say have been needed for about 20 years. Everybody knew when NAFTA was passed that while NAFTA would change Mexico – and it has dramatically economically – without those structural changes Mexico couldn’t take full advantage of it. So it really is a good moment in the relationship for us to be focusing on the economic. Obviously, at the same time as the U.S. comes out of recession, it’s an excellent time for us to be focusing on North American competitiveness. And you saw that theme highlighted by the President in Toluca, Mexico at the North American Leaders Summit in March and by the Vice President in the High-Level Economic Dialogue, and you’ll see it again from the Secretary today as he carries through that theme in this meetings.

He will be attending with his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Meade, what is called the Bilateral Forum for Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. That is an entity that was also announced by the President last year. This is a design to increase academic mobility, meaning student exchange, professors, institutions, research institutions doing more work together, which is why France Cordova of the National Science Foundation will be with us. It’s also designed to increase the amount of university-to-university connections, both, as I say, in academic exchanges for students, for professors, for research, for innovation, technology transfer, things of that sort. So the Secretary will attend. There are six working groups that are part of that bilateral forum, and the Secretary will attend. That will be underway. The Secretary and the foreign minister, the education secretary, and Dr. Cordova will attend that and launch the action plan to implement what the working groups have done over the last few months.

The Secretary will also go to a CleanTech event this afternoon. That’s an event that actually was initially originated via support from USAID on technologies for – it’s clean tech in its broadest sense. It’s not just energy. It’s technologies to make products more cleanly, to clean things up, whether that be production, manufacturing, water. And it’s a competition now that’s held every year sponsored by the private sector in Mexico, and he will meet with some of the previous winners of this competition and look at some of the projects that have been part of this year’s competition and speak with people who’ve been involved in supporting or being part of that competition.

He’s also going to briefly attend the Feria de las Culturas Amigas, which is a cultural fair that’s held in the Zocalo, the main plaza in downtown Mexico City, the iconic plaza where all of the major political events in Mexico take place, whether the presidential inauguration, the Grito, which is the national independence day celebration, or major protests. This is a cultural fair with booths from many, many countries around the world. He will stop by the U.S. booth there, and then he will go to the Palacio Nacional, which is the headquarters of the government offices on the Zocalo, the main plaza, and see the very famous Diego Rivera murals in that building.

He will obviously meet with Secretary Meade. They will talk about some of the economic issues that we will be reviewing, whether that’s part of G20, APEC, TPP. We’re now observers to the Alliance of the Pacific, which basically puts together four of the most progressive open trading nations in Latin America – Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. He will also talk about some of the education efforts that we’re making either through the bilateral forum or the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative that the President launched two years ago, almost three years ago now. And obviously, in that meeting he’ll also talk about some regional and global issues with Secretary Meade, whether that’s the upcoming OAS General Assembly, the situation in Venezuela, or more global issues – Syria, Ukraine, Iran, other issues of that sort.

He’ll then meet with President – I’m not sure if I’ve got all the order of this right – President Pena Nieto. One of the things we’re also going to be talking about is issues along the border and making the border both more secure and more efficient. One of the issues that’s come up a lot recently is unaccompanied minors. We have seen a huge spike in unaccompanied children coming to the United States very largely from Central America, not from Mexico necessarily but from Central America. This has really taxed our own shelter system, which is not necessarily prepared to deal for what is almost a ten times increase in the numbers and it’s an issue that we’re struggling with, as is Mexico because they transit Mexico, obviously, before getting to the U.S. So that’s one of the issues we’re going to be working on together, among other border issues that we constantly work on.

I think that covers a lot of it, but questions?

MODERATOR: Anybody have questions?

QUESTION: Could you give us – you touched on this, but apart from the themes that are going to be discussed, is there something that’s specifically going to happen there in the sense – will there be any decisions made, any plans promulgated? Will they begin implementing this action plan? Is there something that’s --


QUESTION: Any deliverables or at least things that are going to occur?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think two things. One, the action plan for the bilateral forum on education will be launched, which means you’ve had this period of time when the working groups have worked up these action plans, and the ministers will now basically bless that action plan and launch that and send everybody off to implement. So --

QUESTION: And the plan will do what, exactly?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The plan will do a number of things. It will increase the number of students from each country’s – each country studying in the other. I mean, if you’ve looked at the numbers, the number of U.S. students studying in Mexico is really pretty low given the size of the population and the proximity. It’s something like 14- to 20,000. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s low considering the number of students we have going abroad. The number of students coming from Mexico, they have a goal of getting to about 100,000 Mexican students in the U.S. from a figure that I don’t know right now but also is nowhere near that.

So one of the things is going to be clearly identifying students to study in the U.S., but also Mexico’s been working really hard on trying to fund those students. Televisa is funding 300 students to come to community colleges. So we’re also trying to broaden the pool. So there’s going to be a lot of activity to actually get students into U.S. schools and vice versa.

There’s also going to be a lot of work on making sure that the systems of study, the credit systems get transferred. That’s kind of a big impediment. There’s going to be a push on English language teaching. There’s going to be a lot more work between research institutions, including national labs and things like National Science Foundation. So that’s the kind of implementation they’re going to be doing going forward. For example, the – and I have to remember the right organization. I think it’s the American Association of Private-Public Universities, Public and Land Grant Universities, which has just accepted into its membership the first foreign universities, six Mexican universities. So it’s things like that that are going to take place coming out of it which will make it easier for students to move back and forth.

QUESTION: And apart from the education, the launching and such (inaudible) something else?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think apart from that what you’ve got is basically a continuation of the economic and the security agenda. On the security side, which I didn’t mention as much, you’ve seen over the last 18 months a review of the security agenda. This is a – this administration, the Pena Nieto administration, came in saying they wanted to logically review what the administration was doing before them, the Calderon administration, with a greater emphasis on reducing violence after nearly 70,000 deaths in Mexico from cartel violence. And so we’ve taken most of the last year to look over all of the projects, and people were concerned that that meant a slowdown in the Merida Initiative and the funding that we were doing for some of the security projects. But you’ve now seen over $430 million of funds approved for projects, 78 projects approved. Those will now be pushed forward.

That’s another thing where the Secretary and Foreign Secretary Meade will give that a push forward to move ahead with increased focus on judicial sector reform. Mexico passed judicial reform in 2008, which transitions their system from a written inquisitorial system like the Spanish, which most of Latin America had, to an oral adversarial system, which is much more transparent; many more rights for the accused and the victim; less reliance on confessions, which frankly leads to torture, so that will be a good thing. And that judicial reform is not finished and there’s a lot more that has to be done in the next two years because it has to be finished by 2016. So there’s going to be a real push in that area.

There’s going to be a lot more going on in police and corrections training, especially at the state level, where we haven’t begun to work yet. So they’ll be talking about that. So there’s a lot more happening on the security side. You’ve also seen, obviously, two of the biggest traffickers captured in the first year of the Pena Nieto administration, year and three months: Chapo Guzman, who really was the most wanted for more than a decade after he escaped from prison in Mexico; and Trevino, who was the head of the Zetas. And these were guys who basically Calderon was hoping to and looking for to capture for over six years, and now they were captured in the first year. And I think that kind of put the lie to the concern that there would be less cooperation with this government than there had been before.

So I think a lot of it is to reaffirm the cooperation and the commitment and to give a lot of that momentum an additional push.

QUESTION: How would you compare the security relationship with the Pena Nieto government compared to the Calderon?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think one of the things – yeah, I think one of the things you have to remember is by the end of the Calderon administration it wasn’t the end of six years of cooperation, it was the end of 12 years of cooperation --

QUESTION: Yeah, because of Fox.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- because very little had changed from Fox to Calderon. The people had moved positions, but a lot of them were the same. You get a new government in which has been out of power , the PRI, out of power for 12 years, and they’re not even the same guys, right? Look at the average age of the Pena Nieto government. They’re like 42 or something.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’re very young. And so this is a whole new cast of characters, most of whom came from state government. So we didn’t know them; they didn’t know us. And so logically, it took much of that first year to kind of get – build the confidence back or build the confidence that you don’t have coming in. And many of those people who came into federal government didn’t have federal government experience.

So for example, one of the things that they wanted to do was create what’s been talked about as this Ventanilla Unica, one window, right? No more going to every government agency individually; we want to coordinate it through the Gobernacion Ministry. And there was a lot of concern about that initially. But if you recognize that – and we recognize this – it came out in the WikiLeaks cables, the alleged cables – that they weren’t coordinating well on the Mexican side, right? The right hand didn’t always know what the left hand was doing. Then the answer of trying to push everything through one coordinating ministry was not a bad response. It made perfect sense. It ultimately is cumbersome, and I think they realized that and they’ve relaxed that a little bit once everybody became more comfortable with how to coordinate a bit more loosely, but initially there was a very tight hold on that coordination and so it was slow.

I think we’re at a point right now, especially recently, where the cooperation is just outstanding, especially if you see the Chapo Guzman takedown. So I think that things are moving forward very, very well right now, and they’re only going to get better as the confidence level rises with increased operational coordination and information sharing.

QUESTION: Why did the get El Chapo now as – I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think there’s one really important reason, and that is he got sloppy. And they always do, right? He wasn’t in the mountains. He wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. He was in the middle of a city – Mazatlan? Mazatlan, right? It was Mazatlan, not Acapulco. But anyway, he got tired of being in the middle of nowhere, right? He got tired of being in a different house every night. They got close to him three times before – once in Cabo San Lucas, once – I can’t remember where the second and third times were. But each time they learned a lot about him.

The other thing that was really interesting was the Mexicans increasingly got good at learning from the near misses. And that’s exactly what you have to do, right? Every time they got closer, they arrested people who were closer to him and learned more about where he might be. And that’s what good law enforcement work is. So I think that’s why they got him this time.

QUESTION: So it’s not a matter of, like, the Pena Nieto people maybe after --


QUESTION: -- becoming more adept?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think it’s a matter of them becoming more adept at good old-fashioned law enforcement work.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. But I think it really is just getting better and better at how to pursue these guys. And I think it’s a combination of that and these guys eventually getting sloppy or cocky and making mistakes.

QUESTION: Are you going to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can I just mention one more thing?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: One of the other things that I think that the Secretary will want to talk to Secretary Meade about is Secretary Meade has been the leader of a new grouping of countries called MITKA – infelicitously – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia. These are middle-ish – middle income, in some way, groups. They’re rapidly growing democracies. They’re all members of the G20. He views them as countries that have likeminded views of the world and can play a role in coordination. Obviously, they have significant differences.

It’s not clear to us what that group is or where they want to go, but the Secretary is interested to learn from Secretary Meade where he sees that group. They met for the first time at the UN General Assembly last September, and Secretary Meade hosted those foreign ministers in April in Mexico. So they’ll talk a little – it’s that kind of conversation as well.

QUESTION: Is this group playing a role in – I don’t know – some of the other international issues?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The answer is I don’t know yet. And I’m not sure they know yet. I don’t know if they know yet what they want to do with the group. I think that’s part of what the Secretary would like to learn from Secretary Meade is how they see themselves playing a role and in what way.

QUESTION: You mentioned Venezuela. What kind of – can you talk a little bit about where that’s going to come up, what role Mexico’s going to play with that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think one of the things that the Secretary would like to talk with Secretary Meade about is – obviously, in the last six weeks or so, the main role in Venezuela has been taken by UNASUR, which is the nations of South America. Obviously, that doesn’t include us or Mexico. But --

QUESTION: And it hasn’t been very successful so far, it looks like.



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But we feel strongly that all of the democracies in the Western Hemisphere have a pretty important role to play when something is happening in Venezuela, as has been the case, frankly, over the last number of years, not just since February when the protests began. And so obviously, that was one of the reasons why we felt it was important for the OAS to act, and they didn’t. So the real question is for them to sort of compare notes on what they’re hearing out of Venezuela, whether we think the efforts that UNASUR and the Vatican are making are working, and what more can we do from outside that process to either help it along or to be ready to do something more.

QUESTION: But you’re not at the point now – not you, but, like, the --


QUESTION: -- relations aren’t at the point now where Mexico or the U.S. is prepared to take a larger role?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think – we’ve said from the beginning that we will support the UNASUR process, but – and that it’s not a bilateral issue, but there’s a role for all of us to play in trying to press whoever we have influence on to move ahead with this process pretty smartly to get some results, which has not happened yet. We don’t have a whole lot of influence with the government, right? I don’t know what influence Mexico may have with the government.

But Secretary Meade was down in Venezuela as part of a Caribbean trip, because they hosted the Association of Caribbean States back in April as well. What views he may have from that trip would be interesting, and what more they may be able to do from outside UNASUR or with some of the South American countries to put pressure on the government to move ahead and implement some of the things they’re talking about in the dialogue quickly before this really does fall apart.

QUESTION: You said --

QUESTION: When you say “quickly,” how quickly do you think --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t think we have a whole lot of time. I mean, it’s been a month, which is not a huge amount of time. But you’ve seen the opposition leave the dialogue table, and I think one of the leaders of the opposition said the other day – he said this is a dialogue – and he said it in Spanish – he said this is not a tertulia, which is a conversation, right, like about a book or something. It’s not a conversation for conversation’s sake; it’s a conversation leading to results like implementation of human rights standards, freeing of detainees who were protesting peacefully, moving ahead to balance some of the tribunals that have been all packed with Maduro supporters. None of those things are happening. I don’t think we have months. I think we’re talking about days or maybe weeks at the most for some movement by the government. I don’t know that everything has to happen on the agenda.

QUESTION: Or? Or what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Or people will go back to being frustrated enough to want to go out in the streets again. That’s the fear. And meanwhile, the economic situation gets worse. This is a country with the highest inflation in the world.

MODERATOR: I think we’re loading, so maybe --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, excellent. I didn’t get my ten minutes. Okay.

QUESTION: Do you guys have a position on – like the Senate – I guess Senate Foreign Relations passed a sanctions --


QUESTION: -- bill yesterday. Do you guys have a position on the sanctions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, look, the sanctions bill has in it conditions for visa revocations and financial sanctions that we actually believe focus on the right issues – that is on human rights abuses and those who may have directed them.

But the real issue – and this is always, I think, of course, a tension between the Executive and the Legislative Branch – is when those sanctions get used. And our view is that needs to be left up to us because the timing of sanctions and the effect they have on negotiations is very delicate. And the last thing we want to do is torpedo any dialogue that might lead to action, but we’re just as frustrated as the Senate is that nothing’s happened yet.

So we don’t support taking those actions right now, but we certainly understand the frustration that’s led to that legislation, and the focus on the human rights abusers, we think, is the right one.

MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.