MEXICO CITY — They rarely gripe about NAFTA, never invaded Mexico and paint themselves as similarly threatened by the U.S. giant. Unfailingly diplomatic, Canadians have long been the northern neighbors that Mexicans could love.
But Monday, it was the Canadian government that was in hot water with Mexico. The Canadian ambassador here was forced to step down after granting an interview in which he labeled Mexico corrupt and described this country's war on drugs as a "joke."
"I am an expert on the Middle East, and when I came here I thought I already knew everything about corruption. But I was mistaken," said Ambassador Marc Perron in the startling interview in a Mexican magazine, Milenio.
Perron stepped down after Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria Trevino called his Canadian counterpart to protest, authorities said.
Canada is Mexico's No. 3 trading partner, and business between the two countries has picked up since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994. But unlike the United States, which has a history of war and other disputes with Mexico, Canada had enjoyed serene relations with its NAFTA partner.
Mexicans, who are highly sensitive to what they consider frequent condescending comments by U.S. officials, were taken aback by the ambassador's criticism.
"It's surprising; the Canadians have been extremely discreet in their relations with the government. This is the first scandal of these dimensions" between the countries, said Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist who writes about U.S.-Mexican relations.
Perron's comments weren't much different from the sort of criticism Mexican politicians and academics routinely sling at the government and one another. But the scandal reflects the fact that "the government is very sensitive to criticism from abroad," said political scientist Jorge Castaneda.
In the interview, Perron praised Mexico's transition toward democracy and its recovery from a severe economic crisis. But he complained that Canadian businesses are sometimes at a disadvantage in Mexico because of corruption.
"In Canada, things are very clear, there's a law. . . . But here it's not like that. It's, 'Look, the law says this, but if you give me something then we'll make a deal,' " the Canadian official said.
Turning to Mexico's fight against drug trafficking, Perron was equally critical. He noted that Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, then the government's anti-drug czar, was arrested last February after being accused of working for one of Mexico's top drug lords.
"The authorities say, 'Oh, yes, we are working on that,' and then they put a general at the head of the anti-drug fight and it turns out he's a drug trafficker," Perron said. "What a joke. We are discreet about this, but it's obvious that things aren't going well."
Canadian authorities said Perron will be reassigned to an unspecified post in Canada.