Rounding out a week filled with group confabs, working lunches, fancy dinners and high-stakes individual dialogues with world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Joe Biden on Friday sat down with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss fentanyl and migration.
Publicly, there was no trace of any possible leftover tensions from past bumps in the pair’s relationship — including when the Mexican president snubbed Biden’s Los Angeles summit last year to discuss migration with Latin American leaders. Instead, Biden and López Obrador took to personally praising one another in their fourth in-person meeting Friday.
“I couldn’t have a better partner than you,” Biden told López Obrador.
“We have a great relationship and you have an extraordinary president in the United States — a man with convictions, a good man,” López Obrador later returned the compliment through an interpreter.
On a call with reporters to discuss Friday’s meeting, senior administration officials called the U.S.-Mexico relationship “consequential and strategic for the United States,” noting Mexico is America’s largest trade partner. The one hour sit-down “covered really the gamut,” an official added.
But migration at the border between the two nations as the U.S. deals with a surge in border crossings as well as fentanyl trafficking into the U.S. — two issues that are related — were expected to be top of mind. Human smuggling over the border is a part of cartel operations that also include drug trafficking into the U.S.
“I want to thank you, Mr. President, and your team — I really mean it — for the cooperation and your leadership in taking on this challenge,” Biden said on the topic of migration. “I know it’s not easy.”
Arrests for illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border were up 21% in September as Democratic governors and mayors across the country beg for more federal assistance to help shelter migrant families and Republicans continue to berate Biden for his border policies.
Biden’s request to Congress for $14 billion for border security along with additional funds for Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific were left out of the short-term government funding measure the House and Senate passed this week and the request faces an uncertain future.
In an apparent reference to former President Donald Trump, López Obrador on Friday said he wanted to “express and to say” that Biden is “the first president in the United States in recent times who has not built walls.” However, just last month, the Biden administration waived laws for additional construction of the wall started during the Trump administration — arguing Congress already appropriated the funds for this purpose in 2017 and thus Biden’s hands were tied.
Meanwhile, on fentanyl, the U.S. president remarked to López Obrador that he wanted to tell him about his “great conversation with Xi Jinping on that issue.” In a closely-watched sit-down for the first time in a year on Wednesday, Biden and Xi agreed to take action to crack down on the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses used in the production of the powerful opioid.
Mexico and China are the primary sources for synthetic fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. Nearly all the chemicals needed to make it come from China, and the drugs are then mass-produced in Mexico and trafficked via cartels into the U.S.
Of the more than 100,000 deaths a year linked to drug overdoses since 2020, about two-thirds are related to fentanyl.
“We’re fully aware of the damage it poses to the United States’ youth,” López Obrador said on Friday. “We are sincerely committed to continue to assist at our fullest capacity to prevent drug trafficking, namely the entrance of fentanyl and other chemical precursors.”
The pair held their sit-down amid the APEC summit in San Francisco, a gathering of 21 member economies in the Asia-Pacific region. Biden was looking to show his commitment to the region and assure the world the U.S. is looking to manage competition with China responsibly.
The U.S. president also closed out the three-day summit on Friday with the APEC leaders retreat, then officially passed the torch to Peru, which will act as APEC’s next host.
“Over the last few days, we’ve worked together — that’s not hyperbole — we’ve worked together to find ways to build an inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economy for the Asia-Pacific,” Biden said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.