MEXICO CITY – The Mexican election tsar delivered a message to the US ambassador that the Mexican president was launching an all-out attack on the national election authority, casting doubts about one of the pillars of the country’s democracy.
But instead of expressing concern, the top US diplomat in Mexico took one of the president’s lines of attack, amusing allegations that elections long into the past, in 2006, had been stolen from the Mexican leader.
Ambassador Ken Salazar said in an interview that he was not convinced the elections were clean, challenging the US position at a time when democracy is under threat at home and across the globe.
Mr. Salazar, who invited the election supervisor to his residence, told the New York Times that he wanted to know: “Was there fraud?”
It’s been settled a long time ago – for Mexico’s judicial system, the European Union and the US government – until now.
This ambassador’s willingness to question the legitimacy of the election is the latest example of what many US officials say is a troubling pattern, in which the top US diplomat in Mexico appears to contradict his government’s policies in order to side with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. .
When he took office in September 2021, Mr. Salazar was asked to prioritize building a strong relationship with Mr. Lopez Obrador in the hope that it would advance the White House’s agenda.
As the main barrier between the United States and record flows of immigrants, Mr. Lopez Obrador wields significant influence over Biden and his presidency.
Administration officials have said that maintaining Mexico’s cooperation means avoiding conflict with a mercurial Mexican leader who has the potential to damage Biden’s political future by refusing to restrict immigration.
Mr. Salazar actually managed to get close to the Mexican president.
But there is growing concern within the administration that the ambassador may have actually harmed US interests in the process — and has not used the relationship for policy victories when Biden needs it most, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials. and analysts.
The ambassador re-exposed allegations of election theft that the Mexican president used to stoke mistrust in the country’s democracy; questioned the integrity of a US-funded anti-corruption nonprofit that had stood up to the president; He caused a political storm by appearing as a signal of support for energy reform that the United States government opposed; He was silent as Mr. Lopez Obrador relentlessly attacked journalists.
In strategically important countries ruled by fickle leaders, US ambassadors often have to walk a fine line between establishing a relationship with the president and advancing their government’s priorities.
Mr. Salazar insists that his “direct relationship” with Mr. Lopez Obrador is beneficial to the United States.
However, within the US government, some are questioning whether the administration’s soft approach is actually working – or that it is only encouraging Mr. Lopez Obrador as he challenges US influence and undermines democratic guarantees, according to senior US officials who were not allowed to speak publicly.
The Mexican leader has pursued an energy agenda that threatens corporate America and regularly uses his bullying pulpit to discredit and humiliate those who question his government.
The economy is collapsing, violence continues, and now Mexico – not Central America – is the biggest source of immigrants arriving at the US border.
Even after the ambassador’s attack, the Mexican president led several leaders in boycotting a major summit the administration hosted in June, embarrassing Biden on the world stage.
“The ambassador thinks he is close to AMLO,” said Duncan Wood, vice president of strategy at the Wilson Center, using the nickname of the Mexican leader. “Is there anything to show? I can’t find anything.”
Mr. Wood said the Biden administration is “played by AMLO”.
Since the beginning of his term, Biden has had a fraught relationship with the Mexican president, who initially refused to acknowledge his election victory.
President Donald J. Trump, while in office, forced Mr. Lopez Obrador to implement his hardline immigration policy under the threat of tariffs, in return leaving the Mexican leader alone to pursue his domestic agenda.
The Biden administration relies on Mexico to enforce its immigration laws, and Mr. Lopez Obrador’s government has devoted significant resources to the effort, arresting a record number of immigrants last year.
At the same time, Biden has pledged to pursue a broader agenda in the region, including defending human rights and democracy – without the harsh tactics of his predecessor.
Mr. Salazar was seen as the perfect man to appease the Mexican president. Officials assumed that the former Democratic senator’s folk style would work well with Mr. Lopez Obrador’s character, a man of the people.
“What we need to do is tackle these huge and unprecedented problems together,” said Mr. Salazar. “And you can’t do that if you have an enemy.”
Mr. Salazar meets with Mexico’s leader on a regular basis, ensuring ample access to the country’s top power broker.
While Mr. Lopez Obrador was pursuing energy reforms, the ambassador set up meetings between the Mexican leader and affected US companies. Mr. Salazar Reuters The United States government is making progress in settling disputes affecting more than $30 billion in U.S. investment in Mexico’s energy sector.
Publicly, the Biden administration is on the side of Mr. Salazar.
“Some of the criticism of him is because of his very active engagement with this government, but frankly, he’s doing it to try to advance American interests,” said Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s senior adviser on Latin America.
As for Mr. Lopez Obrador’s claim that the 2006 elections were stolen from him, Mr. Gonzalez asserted in an interview that the US position on the matter “has not changed”, despite the Ambassador’s skepticism.
“We are aware of the outcome of the election results,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “The United States has been on record.”
However, Mr Salazar told the New York Times he was “not aware of the US government’s line” and that he still had doubts: “A lot of people who watched the vote that night, including people with no ax to grind, told me, who are Very reliable people, that there was a scam.”
It is such events that have alarmed US officials, who say the ambassador may have gone too far. At times, it has caused confusion about the position of the United States on some of the most sensitive political issues.
Weeks after Jennifer Granholm, the US energy secretary, traveled to Mexico to express concern about changes to energy, Salazar appeared to contradict her message, telling Mexican reporters that the “president is right” to make changes to the law.
The comment, which Mr Salazar said was taken out of context, was organized by Mr Lopez Obrador to indicate the ambassador’s support for legislation that would boost Mexico’s state-owned electric utilities and jeopardize billions in US investments.
In March, the Mexican president invited the ambassador to join him for his daily press conference, taking the podium to advance government talking points and attack anyone he considers an adversary – including the US government.
Mr. Salazar wanted to attend, he told The Times, but his staff urged him to reconsider, arguing that standing next to Mr. Lopez Obrador during one of his speeches would be too risky for the Biden administration.
In the end, potential embarrassment was averted by what the ambassador said was a “scheduling conflict”.
Earlier this year, a prominent civic leader wrote to Mr. Salazar seeking support against Mr. López Obrador’s attacks on advocacy groups. Then Commander Maria Amparo Cassar was summoned to the home of Mr. Salazar.
The non-profit organization Ms. Cassar runs, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, investigates graft and is a regular target of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s disparagement.
The president also attacked the US government for funding the group, which was co-founded by a businessman who left the organization to form an opposition movement.
Two US officials not authorized to speak publicly said a senior Biden administration official told Mr. Salazar that the administration would not withdraw funding for the organization.
But in the run-up to the meeting, he tells his crew that he has become skeptical of the group and wants to investigate it.
The ambassador told The Times he believed the group’s founder’s opposition activity “created the appearance of improper” and said he would “advocate the funding cut” if he found accusations of political activity credible.
At the meeting, Mr. Salazar questioned Mrs. Cassar, wondering if her group was secretly involved in politics. Ms Cassar, shocked, said no, explaining that US government auditors had repeatedly decided that the group was not involved in politics.
“Why should I believe you?” Then the ambassador asked, according to two people familiar with the meeting who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Mrs. Cassar replied, “The only proof I have is my words.” “It doesn’t smell good,” the ambassador told her, before suddenly getting up and interrupting the meeting.
Mr. Salazar He told The Times he had every right to raise “legal and ethical” issues with recipients of US funding, adding, “Anyone can tell you a lot of things that aren’t true.”
Mr. Gonzalez told The Times that the US government would continue to fund Ms. Cassar’s group. He said, “The policy of the United States is clear in this regard.”
All the political capital the ambassador tried to build with the Mexican president wasn’t enough to stop him from delivering a humiliating rebuke to Biden last month.
In the run-up to the administration’s major regional summit in June, the Mexican president repeatedly criticized the United States for not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela.
Mr. Salazar pleaded with him to attend, said a US embassy official who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, but Mr. Lopez Obrador kept threatening to boycott the event, and a wave of states followed suit.
In a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy, the ambassador paid a visit to Mexico’s most important religious site, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the day before the summit kicked off.
“I pray at the Basilica of the Patron of the Americas to raise our leaders to chart a new, transformative era for the Americas and the relationship between the United States and Mexico,” Mr. Salazar posted on Twitter.
Mr. Lopez Obrador officially withdrew from the event the next day.