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Ken Salazar’s closeness to AMLO worries the Biden government

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s election czar had a message for the US ambassador: The Mexican president was mounting a full-scale attack on the electoral authority, casting doubt on one of the country’s pillars of democracy.

But instead of expressing alarm, the top US diplomat in Mexico adopted one of the president’s most frequent lines of attack, considering the possibility that the Mexican leader had been robbed of the 2006 presidential election.

The ambassador, Ken Salazar, said in an interview that he was not convinced that those elections had been fair, challenging the US position at a time when democracy is under threat in that country and in the rest of the hemisphere.

Salazar, who invited top Mexican election official Lorenzo Córdova to his residence, told The New York Times that he wanted to know: “Was there fraud?”

The matter had been settled long ago—for the Mexican judicial system, the European Union, and the US government—until now.

This ambassador’s willingness to question the legitimacy of the election is just the latest example of a pattern that several US officials say is troubling, a pattern in which the top US diplomat in Mexico sometimes appears to contradict the policies of his own government for siding with President López Obrador.

When he took office in September 2021, Salazar was instructed to build a strong relationship with López Obrador in hopes of furthering the White House agenda.

As the leader of the main territory of contention between the United States and the record number of migrants trying to cross the border, López Obrador has a great advantage over Biden and his presidency.

According to administration officials, maintaining cooperation with Mexico meant avoiding conflict with a volatile Mexican leader who has the power to affect Biden’s political future by refusing to stem migration.

Salazar, in fact, has managed to get closer to the Mexican president.

But there is growing concern within the administration that, in the process of rapprochement, the ambassador has risked American interests and has not used the relationship to advance policy when Biden needs it most, according to interviews with more than a dozen officials. and former officials and analysts.

The ambassador has taken up the already discredited claims of the theft of the elections that the Mexican president uses to stir up mistrust in the country’s democracy; he has questioned the integrity of a US-funded anti-corruption organization that challenged the president; and he has caused a political firestorm by giving the impression that he supports an energy transformation opposed by the US government and has remained silent as López Obrador relentlessly attacks journalists.

In strategically important countries governed by volatile leaders, US ambassadors often walk a delicate line in cultivating a relationship with the president of the day and advancing their own administration’s priorities.

Salazar insists that his “direct relationship” with López Obrador benefits the United States.

However, inside the US government, some question whether the soft approach of the current administration really works or rather emboldens López Obrador as he challenges US influence and undermines the safeguards of democracy, according to senior US officials who do not They were authorized to make public statements.

The Mexican leader has pushed an energy agenda that threatens US business and often uses his podium to personally discredit and insult those who question his rule.

The economy is collapsing, violence is on the rise, and now Mexico — not Central America — has become the largest source of migrants arriving at the US border.

Even after the friendly offensive launched by the ambassador, the Mexican president led a boycott of a major summit organized by the US government in June, which embarrassed Biden globally.

“The ambassador has the impression that he is close to AMLO,” said Duncan Wood, vice president of strategy at the Wilson Center. “Is there anything to prove it? I see nothing”.

Biden’s management, Wood said, “is being manipulated by AMLO.”

Since the beginning of his term, Biden has had a complicated relationship with the Mexican president, who initially refused to recognize his electoral victory.

President Donald Trump, when in power, forced López Obrador to carry out his hard-line immigration policy by threatening to impose tariffs and in return left the Mexican leader alone on his national agenda.

The Biden administration also depends on Mexico to enforce immigration policy and the López Obrador government has allocated significant resources to that effort; last year it arrested a record number of migrants.

At the same time, Biden has promised a broader agenda in the region that includes the defense of human rights and democracy without the hard-line tactics of his predecessor.

Salazar was seen as the perfect man to appease the Mexican president. Officials assumed that the former Democratic senator’s easygoing approach would pay off with López Obrador, who presents himself as a man of the people.

“What we need to do is address these huge and unprecedented problems together,” Salazar said. “And you can’t do it if you have an enemy.”

The ambassador meets with the president regularly, giving him significant access to the most powerful person in Mexico.

While López Obrador carried out transformations in energy matters, the ambassador scheduled meetings between the Mexican president and a series of US companies affected by the measure. Salazar told Reuters the US government is making progress in settling the disputes, which could impact more than $30 billion in US investment in Mexico’s energy sector.

In public, the Biden administration backs Salazar.

“Part of the criticism leveled at him is because he is engaging very actively with his government, but frankly he is doing it to try to advance the interests of the United States,” said Juan Gonzalez, Biden’s top adviser on Latin America. referring to the ambassador.

As for López Obrador’s claim that the 2006 elections were stolen from him, Gonzalez confirmed in an interview that the US position “has not changed” despite the ambassador’s skepticism.

“We recognize the result of the elections,” Gonzalez said. “The United States has spoken out publicly.”

However, Salazar told The New York Times that he was “not aware of the US government’s line” and that he still had doubts. “Many people who saw the vote that night have told me, even people who have no personal interest, very credible people, that there was fraud,” said the ambassador.

It is episodes like this that fuel concern among US officials who say the ambassador may have gone too far. At times, it has caused confusion about where the United States stands on the most sensitive political issues.

Weeks after US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm traveled to Mexico to express concern about the country’s energy changes, Salazar told reporters that “the president is right” to seek changes to the legislation, something which seemed to contradict Granholm’s message.

The comment, which Salazar says was taken out of context, was presented by López Obrador as a sign of the ambassador’s support for legislation that would serve to prop up Mexico’s state-owned electricity company and put billions of dollars in US investment at risk. .

In March, the Mexican president invited the ambassador to join his morning press conference, a daily event in which he speaks to advance the government’s talking points and attack anyone he perceives as an adversary, including the US government. .

Salazar wanted to attend, he told the Times, but his staff urged him to reconsider the invitation, arguing that standing next to López Obrador during one of his tirades would be risky for the Biden administration.

In the end, it was possible to avoid possible discomfort due to what the ambassador described as an “agenda problem.”

Earlier this year, a prominent civil society leader wrote to Salazar seeking support against López Obrador’s attacks on defense organizations. The leader, María Amparo Casar, was summoned to Salazar’s residence.

The nonprofit organization Casar runs, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, conducts bribery and bribery investigations and is a regular target of López Obrador’s disdain.

The president had also criticized the US government for funding the organization, which was co-founded by a businessman who left the group to form an opposition movement.

A senior Biden administration official had already told Salazar the United States would not defund the organization, said two U.S. officials who are not authorized to speak publicly.

But before the meeting, he told his staff that he had doubts about the group and wanted to investigate it.

The ambassador told the Times he viewed the group’s founder’s activism as “creating the appearance of impropriety” and said he would “propose defunding him” if he found the allegations of political activity credible.

At the meeting, Salazar questioned Casar, asking if his group was secretly involved in political affairs. A surprised Casar said she did not, explaining that US government auditors had repeatedly determined that her organization did not meddle in politics.

“Why should I believe you?” the ambassador asked, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“The only proof I have is my word,” Casar replied. The ambassador told him “this doesn’t smell good” before abruptly standing up and ending the meeting early.

Salazar told the Times that he had every right to raise “legal and ethical” issues with a recipient of US funding. And he added: “Someone can tell you a lot of things that just aren’t true.”

Gonzalez told the Times that the US government would continue to fund Casar’s group. “US policy is clear on this,” he said.

All the political capital that the ambassador has tried to muster with the president of Mexico was not enough to prevent him from issuing a humiliating rebuke against Biden early last month.

Ahead of the Summit of the Americas, a key regional meeting organized by the Biden administration in June, the Mexican president repeatedly criticized the United States for not inviting Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela to the meeting.

The ambassador asked him to attend, said an embassy official who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, but the Mexican leader continued to threaten to boycott the event, prompting a wave of countries to follow suit.

In a last diplomatic effort, Salazar went to the most important religious sanctuary in Mexico, the Basilica of Guadalupe, a day before the start of the summit.

“I pray to the patron saint of the Americas to help our leaders establish a new transformative era for the Americas and for the relationship between Mexico and the United States,” Salazar posted on Twitter.

López Obrador officially withdrew from the event the following day.

Maria Abi-Habib is the bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. She has reported for The New York Times from South Asia and the Middle East. Find her on Twitter: @abihabib

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