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US and Mexico face off over planned border wall

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Washington/Mexico City  – Tensions between the US and Mexico escalated Thursday as the countries’ presidents scrapped a planned meeting amid a bitter dispute over the construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said he had cancelled a planned trip to Washington on Janaury 31 to meet with his US counterpart Donald Trump after Trump announced the imminent start to construction of a wall along with the detention and deportation of people in the country illegally. Trump later said the decision was mutual.

“The president of Mexico and myself have agreed to cancel our planned meeting scheduled for next week,” Trump told a meeting of congressional Republicans in Philadelphia.

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“Unless Mexico is going to treat the United States fairly, with respect, such a meeting would be fruitless, and I want to go in a different route. We have no choice.”

donald trump-mexico president-Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) at a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (L) after their meeting in Mexico City, on August 31, 2016. (Credit Image: © Ricardo Aldayturriaga/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire)

Trump promised during his presidential campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it, which Pena Nieto has repeatedly refused to do.

Construction of a border wall would take years and could cost 40 billion dollars by some estimates.

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order announcing construction would begin, initially paid by US border security funding.

On Thursday, Trump proposed funding construction with a tax on Mexican goods in the US, currently covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump has also threatened to scrap.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that a “plan that’s taking shape now” would tax imports in a way that would net revenue from countries with which the US has trade deficits.

He gave as an example a 20-per-cent tax – possibly a border adjustment tax, which is similar to a value-added tax – that he said would net more than 10 billion dollars annually on goods brought in from Mexico.

But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that a tax could hit the US equally hard.

“Border security yes, tariffs no. Mexico is 3rd largest trading partner. Any tariff we can levy they can levy. Huge barrier to econ growth,” he tweeted.

While most expected Trump to try to follow through on a promise that was a cornerstone of his campaign, the timing of Wednesday’s order was regarded by many Mexicans as a particular insult, coming as it did when Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo were in Washington for talks.

Pena Nieto’s decision to cancel the meeting with Trump was hailed by Mexicans who had since Wednesday called for the visit to be scrapped as a matter of national pride.

Former President Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) congratulated Pena Nieto on Twitter.

“Bravo, Enrique Pena Nieto” he wrote, “Mexico deserves dignity and respect, we can’t have dialogue when neither of the two is present.”

Allert Brown-Gort, director of the University of California’s Mexico City office, told dpa the rapid escalation in rhetoric was nearly unprecedented.

“This may be the worst moment in bilateral relations since 1920,” he said.

Spicer said another date would be sought for the meeting, and the White House “will keep the lines of communication open.”

Trump has claimed that the wall would save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions of dollars, amid what he called a “crisis” along the 3,200-kilometre border, which is further than the distance from Moscow to Paris.

-dpa