MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to spend some time today talking about the U.S. relationship with Mexico. This after President Obama made a trip across the border yesterday to meet with the Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto as well as the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. It was called the Three Amigos Summit. And here's President Obama speaking from the meeting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we stay focused on our shared vision of a North America that's more integrated and more competitive, then progress in each of our countries will mean more prosperity and opportunity for every one.
MARTIN: The leaders talked about expanding trade and travel among the countries. We want to hear more about that, but also other important issues, particularly involving the U.S. and Mexico like security and immigration. To have that conversation, we've called Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, also author of the memoir "Midnight in Mexico." He's with us from Toluca where the summit was held. Alfredo Corchado, welcome back. Thanks for joining us again.
ALFREDO CORCHADO: Thank you, Michel. Great to be with you.
MARTIN: And also back here with us in Washington, D.C. is one of our regular contributors, Fernando Espuelas. He is host and managing editor of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision. Fernando, welcome back to you as well.
FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So, Alfredo, was there a head line out of this summit?
CORCHADO: More than a summit, it really felt more like a long but rushed lunch. The goal was to celebrate 20 years of NAFTA. But there wasn't much of a party or a fiesta, and the special guest, President Obama, was in a hurry to get back to D.C. He was on Mexican soil for less than 10 hours. They somehow found a way to politely sidestep the real divisive hot-topic issues that really resonate at home, whether it's immigration reform, the highly disputed Keystone XL pipeline that the Canadians want.
The Mexicans couldn't get a commitment to lift travel restrictions or visa restrictions for Mexicans traveling to Canada. And Mexico said nothing about its violence or security challenges, even though Toluca - which is the site of the summit, the capital of the state of Mexico - is surrounded by key states where self-defense groups or militias have largely replaced authorities to protect their citizens. At one point, it was kind of interesting that President Obama pointedly asked President Pena Nieto that he was very interested in hearing about the strategies for security and specifically about reforms in the criminal justice system. But the issue was never addressed, at least it wasn't done so publicly.
MARTIN: Fernando, you've interviewed a lot of business leaders...
MARTIN: ...In Mexico on your program. But they are touting - the three are touting this trade pact that was announced or discussed at the summit called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Is there anything significant in it?
ESPUELAS: I think that it's a highly controversial pact because there is still fear, which I think is well-placed, that NAFTA was not structured in a way that protected workers from the displacement that would occur from one country to another of jobs. And so the fear, again, is that there's going to be that similar repetition of workers' rights not being - somehow being negotiated properly, although the president went out of his way to say that in fact that was one of the things they were going to fix this time.
MARTIN: You know, Fernando, let's go back to something you talked about, which is the whole security question. And certainly of all the things that, you know, a lot of Americans certainly think about when they think about the U.S.-Mexico relationship - and I'm sure immigration is one, security is another - security was the elephant in the room. You were telling us the summit was held 60 miles from the state of Michoacan, where there have been these violent confrontations between the drug cartels and armed civilian militias. And so, Alfredo, is there any sense that this was discussed that all, even if out of public view?
CORCHADO: Well, I talked to some U.S. officials who said that the issue was brought up, but it wasn't really discussed at length. I mean, I think President Pena continues to try to avoid the issue and really focus much more on the economic promise in Mexico. But these are issues that are, you know - more and more become bigger concern for U.S. authorities and for the Mexican population overall. I mean, a lot of the people who are taking up arms in Michoacan and even in the state of Guerrero, are themselves former immigrants, people who were deported back to Mexico. And that sort of changes that dynamic of who's fighting who and what this means for Mexico long-term.
I mean, you talk a lot about opening the country up for business, but if you don't have a rule of law, justice, security system, I think it hinders investment in the long run. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in trying to Mexico strengthen rule of law, their judicial system. And I think there's growing frustration that they haven't really done much. I mean, the conviction rate in Mexico is still less than 2 percent. Mexico has yet to really learn how to punish those who are committing crimes, corruption, etc. And I think there was a lot of expectation yesterday that maybe President Obama would really press President Pena Nieto much more publicly to try to get more of a commitment, and that just wasn't done.
MARTIN: But the president of Mexico has been very vocal about trying to shift the focus of the relationship away from drug policy at least kind of public. How's that going, Alfredo?
CORCHADO: There is another Mexico that's emerging. I mean, there's a Mexico just a few miles from Toluca in Queretaro where the Canadians have come in with big investments, and they're creating this big aerospace cluster along with the French and the Americans. At times, it seems like, you know, it's a much more modern Mexico. But then there's this bloodstain across the country that's very difficult to erase.
And President Pena Nieto up to now has been very, very disciplined in trying to stick to the narrative of the Mexican promise. I mean, he did pass many, many reforms last year - everything from education to energy reform. And, you know, a lot of officials in his team said, look, just give us the benefit of the doubt, we have to find a way to create jobs in order to really tackle organized crime. It's been more than 14 months. And, I mean, as I said, Michoacan is right near by state of Mexico, Guerrero - two key states where self-defense groups are replacing authorities to protect citizens because they're frustrated that not much has been done by the Mexican government.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the U.S. relationship with Mexico. We're talking about his after the so-called Three Amigos Summit. Our guests are Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News and Fernando Espuelas of Univision. Fernando, let's talk a little bit about immigration too, in the time that we have left. And I'm interested, since you just spend so much time on your program talking about immigration, the prospects for immigration reform - the latest we're hearing - I mean, the year started out with promise...
MARTIN: That the two parties might - in the United States - might reach some agreement on this. And now what we're hearing on the Republic side is that they feel that there's just no way to get their caucus to get behind any kind of sweeping agreement. Could you just give us your thoughts about what the state of play is on this issue?
ESPUELAS: Right. There is, as Alfredo says, the development of a more modern economy that is creating more jobs - I mean, NAFTA is a part of that as well - and, therefore, the need for Mexicans to leave their own land to look for better opportunities in the North has lessened to the point that now the migration rate is effectively zero between people who leave the U.S. and people who come from Mexico. So I think that's the good news.
The bad news is that the Mexican government rightly feels that a lot of the rhetoric in this country is directed at their citizens who live in the U.S. And a lot of that rhetoric has been quite nasty, to say the least. And, therefore, I think immigration reform becomes, beyond the practicalities of it, a highly symbolic issue of lack of respect.
MARTIN: Alfredo, any thoughts to add on that? And also, as you said earlier in the conversation, a lot of these issues were papered over - is there a reaction to that in the Mexican press?
CORCHADO: Yeah, you know, I think the Mexicans, more than wanting visas and to go to the United States - I mean, that's still fundamentally a needed. I mean, you have wage disparity with the United States, you want - you know, Mexicans still want to go to the United States. But I think more importantly, for many Mexicans, it's the idea that immigration reform would help kick-start the circular pattern of Mexicans in the United States to go back home to visit families.
You know, many, many kids you interview these days have never really met their mother's, have never really met their father's. They don't know who their family members are in the United States. And so there's a the real need to try to have immigration reform, to try to reunite families. And there was a lot of expectations yesterday that maybe that would be one of the key takeaways.
MARTIN: Finally, Fernando, talk little bit about energy if you would, the energy...
MARTIN: ...If you would. I mean, one of the things - you were saying that the - one of the untold stories of Mexico's recent development is Mexico's rise as an energy, you know, producer. And that was also kind of part of that - certainly that - you know, a part of the U.S. relationship with Mexico, which is - you know, we heard earlier that the kind of Keystone pipeline is sort of an ongoing political issue in the U.S...
MARTIN: ...A very sticky political issue, as well. Could you just talk a little bit about that and what you see going forward?
ESPUELAS: The state oil company has been unfortunately in decline for decades and production of petroleum has been in decline in Mexico for decades. And therefore, their ability to be obviously a growing partner for the U.S. is very highly diminished or nonexistent, whereas the U.S. vision, I think, and the Canadian vision and now the Mexican vision is that there's a North American market that can actually be self-sustaining.
And when I think President Obama talks about energy independence, he always calls it North American energy independence, and Mexico is a key part of that. So Peno Nieto has done a controversial thing, which is that he's taken the highly-symbolic oil industry, which is nationalized the Mexico, and said that now there will be a opportunity for private capital to invest in production, which is highly controversial because of the symbolic nature of it. But at the same time, it's the only way at this point for Mexico to begin to really provide that growth that is needed for the North American market.
MARTIN: Alfredo, a final thought about the summit. I mean, how - is this being viewed as a productive exercise overall, or is it more like treading water?
CORCHADO: You know, overall, President Obama said the summit is useful in that it forces the neighborhood, the three leaders, to try to deal with these issues as best as they can. I mean, they did sidestep the main issues, but they also talked about, you know, things that are important to people like trying to come up with travel agreements to help facilitate the movement of goods and people across borders with the help of technology, the Global Entry program, etc and even protecting the Monarch butterfly, which crisscrosses the three countries. It was also interesting - I mean, just as a side note - talking to locals in Toluca and saying, you know, how do you feel about the summit? What do you think about the summit? A few people said Toluca got a nice makeover, a lot of paint jobs and so forth. And we'd like President Obama to consider running for mayor of Toluca after his presidency, you know.
ESPUELAS: He should visit more cities, maybe.
MARTIN: He'll be free. He'll be free in a couple years.
MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado is Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. He's also author of the memoir "Midnight in Mexico." He was with us from Toluca, where the Three Amigos Summit was held. Fernando Espuelas is host and managing editor of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision. He was kind enough to shop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CORCHADO: Thank you, Michel.
ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.