Mexico president joins political foes to blast Trump border plan

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday sharply rebuked Donald Trump over his plan to send National Guard troops to the border, joining with opponents to tell the U.S. leader not to vent his domestic political “frustration” on Mexico.

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) gestures while addressing supporters during a campaign rally in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Trump has been unable to get the U.S. Congress or Mexico to fully fund his planned border wall, and Trump said Thursday he will probably keep National Guard troops along the Mexican border until it is built.

In an unusually combative address, a stern-looking Pena Nieto urged Trump to stop sowing discord between the two nations and demanded a more respectful tone in bilateral relations.

“If your recent declarations are due to frustration over issues to do with internal policy, your laws, or your Congress, direct yourself to them, not to Mexicans,” Pena Nieto said.

For months Mexico has been locked in tortuous negotiations with the United States and Canada to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but hopes have risen recently that some kind of preliminary deal could be within reach.

“President Trump: if you want to reach agreements with Mexico, we stand ready,” Pena Nieto said, before adding: “We will not allow negative rhetoric to define our actions.”

Pena Nieto and Trump have had a strained relationship ever since the New Yorker launched his campaign in 2015 with the claim that some Mexican migrants are criminals and rapists.

The White House says mobilizing the National Guard was part of Trump’s strategy to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country, whom he blames for serious crime.

Pena Nieto has faced criticism for failing to take a tough line against Trump in the past. Trump’s comments have thrust the countries’ relationship into the center of Mexico’s presidential campaign, where Pena Nieto’s party is trailing.

All the country’s presidential candidates on Thursday criticized Trump’s plan to militarize the border.

The front-runner in the race, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said Trump’s scheme was political “propaganda” based on misinformation that aimed to stir up “xenophobia” and “racism.”

“This great threat on the southern border of the United States that he says is there, does not exist,” said the leftist Lopez Obrador, who has a double-digit lead in most polls.

“This anti-Mexican policy has worked politically because unfortunately there are conservative sectors in the United States with little information and he knows how to awaken an anti-Mexican sentiment,” he added during a campaign event in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo.

Ricardo Anaya, the second-place contender who heads a right-left coalition, echoed a Senate motion on Wednesday calling on the government to end cooperation with the United States on migration and security if Trump did not back down.

“You cannot negotiate or cooperate with threats,” he said.

Jose Antonio Meade, candidate of Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, also attacked the border plan, and independent Margarita Zavala called it a “historic error” and a “hostile act” in a letter addressed to Trump.

Barring Meade, all of the candidates are trenchant critics of the president, but Pena Nieto namechecked all four of them and the Senate motion in his scolding of Trump.

“As president of all Mexicans, I agree with (their) remarks,” he said. “No one stands above the dignity of Mexico.”

Reporting by Michael O’Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dave Graham and Chris Reese