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12 March 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 2:54pm

On the other side of the wall: how Donald Trump has divided Mexico

“Walls are an expression of fear,” Father Alberto insists. “We need to build bridges, not walls.”

By Laura dowley

At a crowded Mass in a migrant shelter in the jungle city of Palenque, Mexico, not far from the Guatemalan border, a parish priest is talking about the need for the people of his country to pull together in response to Donald Trump’s isolationist and racist politics. “Walls are an expression of fear,” Father Alberto insists. “We need to build bridges, not walls.” Packed into a dining room adorned with colourful murals of migrant stories, the congregation applauds. Many are moved to tears.

On 25 January, Trump signed an executive order to begin construction of a wall spanning the length of the 2,000-mile southern border of the United States. The order has caused uproar in Mexico and prompted calls from many different sections of society to unite against the US president’s hostility.

In February, tens of thousands took to the streets in cities across the country to protest against the wall and Trump’s immigration policies. There are approximately 5.6 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States who could face deportation. A renewed sense of patriotism was in evidence as demonstrators waved flags and sang the national anthem to express Mexican solidarity. But many were also marching against their own president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

In a video broadcast to the nation on Twitter a few hours after Trump signed the executive order, Peña Nieto stated, “National unity has to be the cornerstone of our strategy and actions both at home and abroad.”

The richest man in Mexico, the telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, came out in support, saying at a press conference on 27 January, “This national unity is very important . . . We have to back the president of Mexico so that he can defend our national interests.”

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Many ordinary Mexicans are cynical about this call for unity from above, however. “We don’t buy this story about nationalism as rallying around the president,” Father Alberto tells me at the migrant shelter in Palenque, which is located in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. “We will not gift unity to a president who has shown such great ineptitude, who has governed only to serve himself.”

Many consider Peña Nieto’s cry for national unity as a last-ditch attempt to rally support as his popularity dwindles. His approval rating fell to an all-time low of 12 per cent in January, following a surge in the cost of petrol as the government began to deregulate prices.

“Peña Nieto’s presidency is pretty much toast,” David Crow tells me over the phone from Mexico City, where he is a professor of international studies at the Centre for Research and Teaching Economics. While most Mexicans seem to approve of Peña Nieto cancelling a meeting with Trump in late January, Crow says, “It’s just . . . putting a finger in one of many holes of the dyke.”

For many Mexicans, Peña Nieto is emblematic of the corrupt elites that govern solely in their own interests. “Peña Nieto is not my president,” says Lucy Vasques, who comes from a Ch’ol-speaking community in Chiapas. We speak in the office of the small travel company where she is employed, earning £160 a month working 13-hour days, seven days a week, without holidays. “He and his cronies are corrupt. They are despicable thieves who do everything for ambition,” she says.

Mexico is starkly divided on economic and racial lines. It is the ninth most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth distribution. Indigenous communities, which make up roughly 13 per cent of the population, are marginalised: they have limited access to education, are disproportionately impoverished, are severely under-represented in national politics and have suffered human rights abuses.

Many are sceptical about calls for unity while the needs of ordinary Mexicans are ignored. There is a sense that the government could do more to assist the approximately 11.7 million Mexican nationals already living in the US. Peña Nieto has suggested that the Mexican government will allocate funds to its US consulates to protect the rights of its citizens.

Some, such as the lawyer Miguel Flores, remain optimistic that Trump’s politics can be harnessed for good in Mexico. “Trump makes us realise that it benefits us to be united,” he tells me. “He pushes us towards a national solidarity. We should take this opportunity to combat issues such as racism. We can overcome our problems by means of a common enemy.”

While many ordinary Mexicans are scornful of an apparently self-serving political elite, others feel that the Mexican people have much to gain from a renewed sense of national unity, if it can be translated into practical outcomes. In the 2018 general election, it is likely that there will be an expression of this growing sense of national pride in an already fiercely patriotic country. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist left-wing presidential candidate, is already building support on this basis.

At a rally in Los Angeles, California, in February, López Obrador attacked Trump. Vasques was impressed. “[He] went to Trump’s country to say what neither [Luis Videgaray, the Mexican secretary of foreign affairs] nor Peña Nieto dare to say,” she tells me. “He went to defend the dignity of our hard-working people, who have been harassed by Trump’s campaign of hatred and racism.”

Mexico is dependent on trade with the US, which accounted for 80 per cent of its exports and 50 per cent of its imports in 2014. Trump’s policies will disrupt this, but there is some optimism about the likely downturn. Many view it as an opportunity both to reinvigorate internal markets and to strengthen economic ties within Latin America.

There is no doubt that Trump has ignited fury in Mexico. “It’s time to turn this anger into action, courage and hope,” the human rights lawyer Brenda Hernández tells me. “A concrete wall will always be weaker than threads of strength from communities in Mexico and around the world.”

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda