President Joe Biden took his first presidential trip to Mexico attending the North American Leaders Summit alongside host Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the immigration crisis at the U.S. southern border continues to take center stage in the media. The topic was of course a major subject in the debate over Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become Speaker of the House.
One of the main discussion items was securing Mexico’s commitment to continuing the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, whereby up to 300,000 migrants facing expulsion under the Title 42 pandemic restrictions and many more aspiring to enter the U.S. will have to wait out their visa application processing on the southern side of the border.
A key figure in negotiating this arrangement with the Trump administration, and who was instrumental in extending it with Biden, was a shrewd political leader who is little known to the American public. Because of his relevance in cross-border politics past, present, and future, it is time for America to meet AMLO’s right-hand man. The international fixer, and potential successor as Mexico’s next president is their Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon.
Ebrard’s political career took off as he was tasked by Mexico City’s head of government back when this position was part of the presidential cabinet, managing the city’s housing program after a 1985 earthquake left more hundreds of thousands of its residents homeless. His work and diligence as a public official caught the attention of the following head of government, Manuel Camacho, who kept Ebrard as his closest advisor as he was appointed by then President Carlos Salinas as Chiapas Peace Commissioner and later as Foreign Relations Secretary.
Years later, when current Mexican President Obrador became mayor of Mexico City, he recruited Ebrard to become his Public Safety Secretary, where he drastically reduced crime, making the Mexican capital one of the safest cities in the country. His policies were so popular that AMLO backed his successful bid for mayor in the following election, which allowed him to double down on his public safety policies and develop other innovative programs involving teenage education, senior citizens’ retirement pensions and health protocols that allowed him to contain the swine flu epidemic, earning him the “Best Mayor in the World” award by the City Mayors Foundation.
Ebrard stood by AMLO as he accused the PRI-PAN establishment of cheating him out of his two prior presidential bids. His stern loyalty through thick and thin was finally rewarded with his appointment as Secretary of Foreign Relations by AMLO after AMLO finally won the presidency in 2018.
During his tenure, Ebrard has been dubbed the “Mexican Vice President,” a non-existent position in the Mexican government. This is due to his cunning ability to troubleshoot almost any crisis thrown at AMLO’s administration.
His first task was defusing the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on Mexico’s role in curbing undocumented immigration to the United States. Using his diplomatic skills, Ebrard worked with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to negotiate security measures on Mexico’s southern border as well as the hosting of migrants while they awaited their visa approval in the U.S. This resulted in the toning down of Trump’s tariff threats and eventually in the ratification of NAFTA under its new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) moniker.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Ebrard relentlessly lobbied world leaders until he was able to secure the most diverse immunization portfolio in the world, including vaccines from the United States, China, Russia and the U.K.
He reestablished Mexico’s leadership position in the world as a member of the United Nations’ Security Council and its chairmanship of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC.
More recently, Ebrard was instrumental in negotiating a historic agreement with the United States on climate change and reigniting Mexico’s strained relationship with its northern neighbor on energy.
He also successfully helped evacuate the five founding members of the all-female Afghan robotics team, known as the Afghan Dreamers, as well as 73 of their family members, from Afghanistan to Mexico, where they were granted humanitarian visas. As of today, and as a result of his actions, hundreds of media workers and journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, among others, followed the same path and were safeguarded in Mexico.
The incoming House Republican majority has signaled that it will launch investigations against Biden for its handling of the immigration crisis on the Mexican border, including the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The Biden administration’s ability or inability to address the unprecedented influx of immigrants is an issue that could determine the success of his reelection bid in 2024 as the House majority will complain for the next two years to prove his inadequacy.
AMLO listened at the North American Leaders Summit, and like in the Trump era, he will task Ebrard with working out agreeable terms with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Such terms could result in the making — or unmaking — of Biden’s aspirations to remain president through 2028.
Rodrigo Aguilar Benignos is Founder of the North American Project and a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations