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President Joe Biden is greeted by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as he arrives at the Felipe Angeles international airport in Zumpango, Mexico on Jan. 8, 2023.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

U.S. President Joe Biden has landed in Mexico City seeking help stemming a tide of asylum seekers at his country’s Southern border and in the wake of a bloody cartel shootout over an accused drug lord wanted by American authorities.

This week’s North American Leaders’ Summit between Mr. Biden, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also taking place amid mounting accusations of autocracy against the Mexican President.

To Mr. Lopez Obrador’s critics, the violent arrest of Ovidio Guzman Lopez – which left 29 people dead in machine-gun battles between government security forces and cartel members in Sinaloa last week – was only the latest sign of the Mexican President’s expansion of the military’s role in the country.

He has also faced increased opprobrium for trying to curb independent watchdog agencies and for flouting constitutional and trade rules in a bid to help government oil and gas interests over green-power companies.

Despite its rhetoric on protecting international liberal democracy and fighting climate change, the Biden administration has signalled that the President has little appetite to press Mr. Lopez Obrador on these issues.

Instead, the priority at what is informally known as the Three Amigos summit is securing Mexico’s continued co-operation with U.S. attempts to stop migrants making refugee claims at the border. The issue is a political hot button in the U.S., with Republicans persistently hammering Mr. Biden over the thousands of migrants arriving daily.

Last week, Mr. Biden announced plans that will see asylum seekers from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba turned back and ordered to stay in Mexico. On his way to Mexico City Sunday, he stopped off in El Paso, Tex., to tour the border fence and a migrant reception centre.

At a White House briefing, national-security spokesperson John Kirby praised Mr. Lopez Obrador’s administration for arresting Mr. Guzman, who is accused of trafficking fentanyl into the U.S. “This is not an insignificant accomplishment by Mexican authorities, and we’re certainly grateful for that,” he said.

Andres Rozental Gutman, a former Mexican deputy foreign minister, said the Americans would also likely be reluctant to cross Mr. Lopez Obrador because of his penchant for publicly castigating critics and digging in his heels when challenged.

“They know he reacts to these things virulently and I don’t think they want to pick a fight,” he said. “Biden is probably going to make sure that recognition is given to Mexico’s agreement to do the Americans’ dirty work on immigration.”

Since taking power in late 2018, Mr. Lopez Obrador, often referred to in Mexico as AMLO, after his initials, has increased the military’s involvement in policing, border control and infrastructure projects – including the new Mexico City airport that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau are using on this trip.

The Mexican President has also talked about doing away with independent agencies, including the country’s securities regulator and access-to-information authority. Last month, he proposed legislation that would cut the budget of the electoral institute and loosen rules on using government announcements to campaign for office.

“He has shown autocratic or anti-democratic tendencies in the way he views any part of the government that he doesn’t directly control,” said Tyler Mattiace, a Mexico-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has tried to restore the primacy of the government-controlled oil and electricity companies. A constitutional reform by the previous administration, which was also written into Mexico’s free-trade deal with the U.S. and Canada, guaranteed private competition in the Mexican energy market.

After green-energy companies began producing power at a lower cost than government fuel oil plants, however, Mr. Lopez Obrador’s administration stopped issuing permits for new private electricity projects and ordered the grid to prioritize government-generated electricity.

Business leaders urge Three Amigos to move past trade disputes, embrace ‘Team North America’ approach

One insider in Mr. Lopez Obrador’s administration said such moves are a contravention of both the constitution and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and the President’s advisers told him so. But he went ahead anyway because he said the president has the power to do as he wants. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the individual because they felt they were unable to publicly discuss internal government deliberations.

The Canadian and U.S. embassies have worked quietly behind the scenes to get Mr. Lopez Obrador’s administration to issue permits for specific energy companies, said Francisco Salazar Diez de Sollano, who helped engineer the opening of Mexico’s energy market as a legislator and regulatory official. But such advocacy, he said, can only resolve individual cases.

“It hasn’t solved the overall problem. It has been very slow and it’s political. If you were to apply the law, you wouldn’t need it,” he said.

Montserrat Ramiro, the former head of Mexico’s energy regulator, said it was difficult to see a way out of the impasse. Even if Ottawa and Washington won a USMCA dispute, the resultant retaliatory trade measures on Mexico could end up just hurting the country’s economy without actually making the government change its policy.

“In a dispute-resolution panel, Mexico would lose and the U.S. and Canada would then impose tariffs, but those wouldn’t impact the current administration,” she said.

Canadian investment in Mexico has grown in recent years

How Mr. Trudeau will handle Mr. Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, remains an open question. He and his government have committed to advocating on green energy and democratic norms in general terms, but it’s unclear how far exactly they will go.

“Defending human rights and democracy has always been, and will continue to be, a priority for Canada,” his spokesperson, Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, wrote in an e-mail Sunday.

Rodolfo Soriano-Nunez, a Mexican political analyst, said Canada’s more distant relationship with Mexico could cut both ways, giving Mr. Trudeau more latitude to press Mr. Lopez Obrador but less motivation to do so.

“AMLO doesn’t have the kind of leverage over Trudeau that he has over Biden. It’s not as if Mexico is protecting the Great North from Russia,” he said. “But I’m not really sure how far Trudeau wants to pick a fight. Mexico doesn’t play a large part in Canadian politics.”