This week the White House published the “Presidential Determination on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries for Fiscal Year 2021”. The list of 22 countries includes usual suspects like Afghanistan and Colombia plus all the countries in Central America as well as Mexico. The determination dedicates most of its text to discuss the Mexican case but the language alternates between issuing stern warnings and encouraging further cooperation, ultimately sending an ambiguous message.
In the stern warning camp, the determination includes statements like the following:
- Cartels present a clear threat to […] the Mexican government’s ability to exert effective control over parts of its country.
- The Mexican government should acknowledge the alarming trend of fentanyl production inside its territory.
- Unless the Mexican government demonstrates substantial progress in the coming years backed by verifiable data, Mexico will be at serious risk of being found to have failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments.
In the concerned but encouraging partner language, the determination reads:
- The United States remains ready to deepen its partnership with Mexico to address these shared challenges and welcomes the opportunity to develop joint drug control goals with Mexico […].
- Many Mexican military and law enforcement professionals, in cooperation with their U.S. counterparts, are bravely confronting the transnational criminal organizations […].
One interpretation of the mixed language is that it was crafted by design in order to appease US audiences. On the one hand, it sends a message to those who want a more hardline approach towards Mexico while also signaling—presumably—those who, based on experience working with the Mexican government, advocate for recognizing progress south of the border.
Even if this were the case, however, the mixed messages serve ammunition on a silver platter to detractors of U.S.-Mexico cooperation. The warning statements are reminiscent of the language previously employed by the U.S. during the Anti-Drug Certification Process that operated between the mid-1980s to 2001. In those years, the Executive branch, through the “Drug-Czar” (formally the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy) determined on a yearly basis those countries that were deemed to fully cooperate in counter-narcotics efforts in order to avoid sanctions. It was perceived as a unilateral blacklist that graded drug control efforts by other countries. More importantly, it failed to acknowledge the role that demand has in drug trafficking.
To be sure, the determination recognizes current work and states the U.S. desire to develop joint drug control goals. However, those who have questioned the spirit of shared responsibility of the Mérida Initiative will use the stern statements as evidence that U.S.-Mexico security cooperation mechanisms are in fact impositions from the north rather than agreements between partners.
The relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is asymmetric. But Mexico and the United States have shared security interests and while cooperation is often (erroneously) seen as a favor from the U.S. to Mexico, the security of the region can only be achieved with bilateral efforts.
In August 2019, the current U.S. administration also warned Mexico about being included in the list of countries that “failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments”. Arguably, by excluding its neighbor from the failure category in 2020, the current administration recognizes, albeit in a byzantine manner, the vital relationship with Mexico. Both countries need to address issues that damage trust (such as weapons and drug trafficking) but joint policy action also requires unambiguous messages of partnership on both sides of the border.
* 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