By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The United States' top diplomat arrives in Mexico on Thursday with debate raging over the government's efforts to win favor with Washington and save the NAFTA trade pact from collapse, sparking concerns it is ceding sovereignty to its northern neighbor.
Mexico has been at pains to prove itself a good ally to the United States on combating drug trafficking and immigration, in hopes this would help efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a lynchpin for its export-led economy, in as favorable terms as possible.
Those secret efforts sprang into view this week, when Reuters exclusively reported that Mexico is considering allowing U.S. air marshals aboard commercial cross-border flights, igniting a debate over what lengths Mexico should go to in order to win favor with its top trade partner.
"The question is, what else is (Foreign Minister Luis) Videgaray giving to Trump and his collaborators in exchange for preserving NAFTA?" Salvador Garcia Soto asked in his El Universal newspaper column, decrying Videgaray's "opaque" maneuvering.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to have dinner with Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and other attended senior Mexican government and national security officials shortly after his arrival in Mexico City.
Although Tillerson has not been a prominent player in the NAFTA discussions, the future of the treaty is certain to loom over his visit, especially at a trilateral meeting with Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on Friday.
Mexico's government, including the foreign ministry, has pushed hard to defend NAFTA ahead of a July 2018 election in which the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is currently polling third.
"All our efforts right now are based around NAFTA and making sure the pact doesn't collapse," said a senior Mexican diplomat.
Videgaray has said closer cooperation with the United States is the best way to achieve Mexico's foreign policy aims.
"If NAFTA goes away, obviously that would be something that we strongly want to avoid," Videgaray said at an event in New York late last year. "We realize that we could achieve much more by being constructive and by approaching the relationship looking for common ground ... with very active cooperation."
Quizzed by ruling party lawmakers on Tuesday, Videgaray denied the air marshals were part of any NAFTA quid pro quo, but said the government was studying the plan.
Tillerson's Mexico City visit is the first leg in a week-long Latin America trip in which he expected seek to keep up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over his restrictions on domestic political opposition.
Tillerson is due to meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, and Videgaray for a second time, on Friday, and they are certain to discuss Central American migration and drug trafficking, two areas in which Mexico has sought to work more closely with the United States since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.
Last year, as U.S. concern mounted over heroin-related deaths, Mexico bolstered anti-narcotics collaboration, inviting U.S. officials to inspect its opium poppy eradication efforts.
And though once the butt of Trump's barbs over illegal immigration, Mexico has tried to take a bigger role in limiting the flow of migrants north from Central America.
Videgaray, who flew to Washington earlier this week ahead of Tillerson's arrival, is Pena Nieto's most trusted advisor, and has forged close ties with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who serves as a senior advisor to the president.
The influential foreign minister has stepped to the fore of regional Latin American efforts to condemn Maduro's government and has also proved a good friend to the Trump administration on sensitive foreign policy issues including North Korea, Israel and Honduras.
Former Mexican diplomat and intelligence official Gustavo Mohar said it would be foolish to assume such efforts could yield a positive NAFTA result.
"The priority of Mexico's foreign policy in the short-term has been to reach an agreement with the Trump government on trade," he said. "But that doesn't guarantee you anything, because this guy (Trump) is very unpredictable."
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Diane Craft)