The U.S.-Mexico Fentanyl Taskforce does not exist. Yet. Let me explain. Over the last two weeks Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Martha Bárcena and U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, celebrated on Twitter two fentanyl seizures at Mexico City’s international airport of 220 and 113 kilograms on August 12 and 18 respectively.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine and about 50 times por potent than heroin. Data from 2020 show that between 1999 to 2018, 750,00 Americans died from drug overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that synthetic opioids were involved in nearly half of all drug overdose deaths in 2018 and illicitly manufactured fentanyl likely drove the increase in deaths from 2017 to 2018. According the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), just two milligrams of fentanyl can cause a lethal overdose.
The messages by Ambassadors Bárcena and Landau are well received but U.S.-Mexico cooperation could certainly go further. In the early days of President López Obrador’s administration, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, in partnership with Justice in Mexico at the University of San Diego and the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin published the whitepaper “U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation 2018-2024”.
The whitepaper was the product of a year-long work of a taskforce integrated by 25 experts and former government officials on both sides of the border including Brookings senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, former Principal Advisor to President Obama on Latin America, Caribbean, and Canada Dan Restrepo, former deputy director of the National Program for Prevention of Crime Luis Herrera Lasso, and former directors of Mexico’s intelligence agency, Jorge Tello and Guillermo Valdés.
We assessed bilateral collaboration on security issues and proposed a road map to enhance cooperation between the two governments. One of the 9 recommendations was the creation of the creation of a joint U.S.-Mexico Taskforce on fentanyl disruption. Per the original text, we suggested the following:
Mexico should prioritize disrupting fentanyl flows that enter the United States through Mexican territory by land, air, and sea. Mexico can achieve this by improving port security at the border, but also maritime ports that handle substantial volumes of commerce with Asia such as Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo […]. Mexico should share seized fentanyl with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Forensic Sciences to help improve the scientific and technical support to law enforcement on controlled substances.
The United States and Mexico should coordinate with Canada periodically in these efforts and consider a four-way mechanism with China to improve the interdiction of fentanyl, other synthetic opioids, and precursor chemicals.
Without exaggeration, this commission is a low-cost win-win for both countries. Mexico shows it cares about the overdose deaths in the U.S. while further underscoring the inextricable link between violence and forced displacement in some areas of the country and U.S. demand for drugs. Furthermore, and unlike most of Mexico’s reactive drug policy, it allows playing offense rather than defense, on the of changing dynamics of the drug market for synthetic opioids in its own country. The absence of an equivalent overdose crisis today, does not preclude a serious problem in the future.
In turn, the United States can get better intelligence on a substance that is killing its citizens and show its commitment to shared responsibility. The value of this intelligence and trustworthy relationships with Mexican counterparts cannot be overstated given China’s relevance on synthetic opioids and chemical precursors at a time when U.S.-China relations are strained.
The market for fentanyl is changing. Research has shown that while fentanyl was not initially a demand-driven phenomenon, today there is a “range of desirability from abhorrence and avoidance through acceptance and enthusiasm”. While firearms trafficking is a thorny issue, a joint U.S.-Mexico fentanyl disruption taskforce can bring tangible benefits to both countries (serving self-interests) without the baggage that other issues bring to the table. The institutional framework exists. Now is a matter of using it.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc