U.S.-Mexico talks languish, straining ties

Back-burner status behind terror, Iraq frustrates Fox


MEXICO CITY - Mexico wants to talk to the United States about the flood of migrants crossing the Rio Grande. The United States wants to talk about rights to the river's water.

But with the White House fiercely focused on terrorism and Iraq, the two neighbors do not talk much these days.

Relations, say diplomats on both sides, have gone from stalled to strained. Issues that once prompted bold initiatives - immigration, trade, energy - are now reduced to one-liners and nonstarters.

"Got any water for me?" Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castaneda last month, referring to Mexico's billion-gallon debt under a 1944 treaty.

"Yeah, Colin, I always have water for you," he said, shrugging.

The impasse matters little to a preoccupied White House. But it is a serious political liability to Mexico's President Vicente Fox. When he took office in 2000, he promised a closer, stronger relationship with the United States, and safeguards for the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans a year who illegally cross the border.

Now, as Mexico awaits a visit by President Bush in two weeks, officials here say they will fight again to win his attention. Failing that, they are watching the U.S. elections next month to see if voters show an inclination to back candidates and ideas favorable to Mexican immigrants. They are considering alliances with Bush's Democratic opponents in Congress.

But there are signs that Fox thinks he is fighting a losing battle. He is scaling back his vision for a new deal with Washington. He has closed a special office for immigrant affairs and delegated much of its work to consulates. He once regularly traveled to the United States, but has no trips scheduled.

Castaneda, the architect of Mexico's foreign policy, may leave his post before long. And rather than attending meetings at the White House, Mexican officials plan to work on immigration with state and local officials, labor unions and grass-roots organizations.

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