It was not a coincidence. In the waning hours of the Obama presidency, officials in Mexico bundled the drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, into an airplane and handed him to the American government so he could stand trial in New York.
His extradition came after years of painstaking diplomacy. It required convincing the government of Enrique Peña Nieto that the American justice system was better equipped to take Mr. Guzmán, the leader of the violent Sinaloa cartel, out of the drug trade. This was no easy task: Washington’s relationship with Mexico has been strained by an imbalance of power and by American slights. By completing the transfer on President Barack Obama’s watch, Mexico appeared to be rewarding an administration that was respectful. It also ensured that the extradition was not seen as a concession to President Trump, who made maligning Mexicans a centerpiece of his campaign.
Obama officials succeeded because they tried to persuade, not hector, their Mexican counterparts. This fit with the administration’s broader strategy for Latin America, one that was rooted in pragmatism and cooperation. It offers a lesson Mr. Trump would be foolish to disregard.
Leaders in Latin America watched Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign with morbid fascination, followed the transition period with dread and are certain to have been stunned by his Inaugural Address.
While Mr. Trump has called the United States’ trade deficit with Mexico a scourge, he fails to acknowledge some truths. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, trade with Canada and Mexico has soared, a boon for American companies and workers in several industries. Greater prosperity in Mexico caused unauthorized migration to the United States to drop sharply. A trade war would be likely to send Mexico’s economy into a tailspin and encourage new migration.
Mexican officials have wisely refused to escalate tensions with Mr. Trump. But if they conclude that a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States is impossible, they have cards to play that could stymie Mr. Trump’s agenda. Mexico could cease rigorously controlling its border with Guatemala, which would lead more people to try to enter the United States. It could do more to encourage investment from China and Russia, which are eager to strengthen ties with Latin America. And it could end robust cooperation on drug enforcement and intelligence, which would make Americans less secure.
Mexico has made it abundantly clear that this is not the approach it wants to take. If the new administration builds on the successes of Mr. Obama, Mexico may never feel the need to do so.