After five years and a nearly 20-month border shutdown, the heads of government of Mexico, Canada and the United States gave a sense of restored normalcy to trilateral relations last month, when they joined up in Washington for the first summit of its kind since a 2016 gathering—featuring a famously awkward handshake—in Ottawa. Then again, by the time Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, met with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office on the sidelines of what has been dubbed the Three Amigos Summit, they were already capping off a period filled with renewed, high-level bilateral talks on economic and security issues.
The Nov. 18 photo ops that came with the North American Leaders Summit may belie some simmering disagreements, but relations between the two countries are on firmer footing than they were a year ago. At that time, Washington found itself backpedaling, after the arrest of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos at the Los Angeles airport for ties to organized crime caught Mexico City off guard. Despite Cienfuegos’ repatriation and subsequent release by Mexican authorities, the Mexican government passed legislation aimed at reining in U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency activities within its territory, a retaliatory move that many viewed as endangering security cooperation.
But security wasn’t the only fault line in bilateral relations. While the Cienfuegos dustup occurred under the watch of the last U.S. administration, AMLO wasn’t exactly quick to welcome in the new one, especially as the president of a neighboring country and top U.S. trade partner. It took him until Dec. 15, 2020 to send Biden a congratulatory letter, making him one of the last world leaders to recognize the incoming U.S. president’s electoral win. The delay contrasted with a decision a few months earlier by AMLO—a popular populist who rarely leaves Mexico and is known for saying the best foreign policy is a domestic one—to mask up for commercial air travel to meet with then-President Donald Trump in Washington in the middle of the U.S. election cycle.