The early March murder of two U.S. citizens and the kidnapping of two others in Matamoros and the spiraling confrontational reactions that followed in the United States and Mexico merely thrust into high visibility what has, in fact, been a serious problem since the start of Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration: the withdrawal of the Mexican government from meaningful and robust cooperation with the United States on security and law enforcement matters and the utter absence of an effective anti-crime policing strategy in Mexico.
The March murders and kidnappings are not the only attacks on Americans in Mexico. recent examples include the disappearance of Texas women traveling to a flea market in Mexico and a February kidnapping of an American woman from her Mexican home in Pueblo Nuevo, Colima. Tragically, the numbers of such incidents are dwarfed by the kidnappings, forced disappearances, and murders to which Mexican citizens are subjected to in Mexico. Since 2017, more than 30,000 Mexicans are killed per year inside their home country. Mexico’s National Database of Missing and Unlocated Persons (RNPDNO) lists more than 112,000 disappeared and so far unlocated in Mexico, though the actual number of the disappeared, also including unregistered disappearances, likely is significantly higher. Meanwhile, some 52,000 bodies have been located in Mexico, but not identified.
In the United States, the largest source of unnatural death is not homicide, but narcotics. Tens of thousands of Americans have been dying per year from drug overdose over the past decade. In 2021, the number was 106,699; and in 2022, it is estimated to be 107,477. Most of the deaths are due to fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, consumed on its own, or mixed into fake prescription pills, heroin, and increasingly also methamphetamine and cocaine. Since 2019, when China at the U.S. behest scheduled the entire class of fentanyl drugs, fentanyl has been predominantly trafficked to the United States by the two largest Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación. The cartels sometimes import it to Mexico in a finished form (a trend that’s reemerging after China withdrew from all law enforcement cooperation with the United States in summer 2022). But mostly in recent years, the cartels have been manufacturing fentanyl in Mexico from precursor chemicals imported from China and then trafficking it to the United States.
In reaction to the recent murders and kidnappings of Americans, and frustrated with inadequate cooperation of the Mexican government with U.S. law enforcement efforts, Republican lawmakers such as Senator Lindsay Graham, have called for designating the cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and/or a tougher policy, including select military options.
President López Obrador has reacted with a defensive crouch, withdrawing even further from the already-inadequate minimal Mexican counternarcotics cooperation and promoting blatantly false, Trump-like narratives about the lack of Mexico’s role in the U.S. fentanyl epidemic. Publicly-available evidence, U.S. intelligence assets, as well as President López Obrador’s own words, debunk his most recent claims.
In recent days, the Mexican president has claimed that fentanyl is neither produced nor consumed in Mexico. Distressingly, he also got other top Mexican officials, including his chief negotiator with the United States, Roberto Velasco, to repeat those false claims, raising questions about what kind of meaningful U.S.-Mexico cooperation can still be resurrected.
Yet the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice have repeatedly issued threat assessments showing the role of the Mexican cartels’ in fentanyl production in Mexico and trafficking to the United States. Major Mexican and U.S. newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal, have published detailed exposés of Mexico’s fentanyl labs. Most damningly, the Mexican military itself announced in February 2023 the seizure of half a million fentanyl pills in the bust of the largest fentanyl lab found in Mexico so far – in the Culiacán, the capital of the Sinaloa state. And President López Obrador himself spoke of the fentanyl lab bust in its February 15 morning press conference. No fentanyl produced in Mexico – hah!
President López Obrador’s subsequent failed attempt at a sleight-of-hand sophistry as he claimed last week that the busted labs in Mexico merely press pills and don’t cook fentanyl is blatantly absurd.
Blaming fentanyl use in Mexico in the United States moral and social decay, including American families not hugging their children enough (the statement an apparent nod to his strategy of confronting Mexican criminals with “hugs and not bullets”), the Mexican president also proceeded to deny that fentanyl is increasingly consumed in Mexico. The Mexican government certainly insufficiently monitors drug use in the country and rarely tests for fentanyl. Yet, various U.S. officials have repeatedly told me over the past two years that the Mexican government itself was increasingly concerned about the spread of fentanyl use in Mexico and various newspaper and NGO exposes have documented how fentanyl use is sweeping and overwhelming northern Mexico.
Even though for years, the Mexican government has been frustrated with the lack of China’s cooperation with Mexico in countering the smuggling of fentanyl and fentanyl precursors to Mexico, President López Obrador’s statements sound as if they were taken straight out of China’s talking points. For some years now, Beijing has portrayed the U.S. fentanyl epidemic as a matter of U.S. decadence and problematic policies of U.S. pharmaceutical companies and other internal U.S. failings, denied that China shared any responsibility for it, and portrayed its anti-fentanyl actions, such as the scheduling of fentanyl and its analogues and several of its precursors, as a great “humanitarian” gesture toward the United States. It has similarly denied co-responsibility for the smuggling of fentanyl and precursors to Mexico, blaming corruption and poor customs enforcement and policing in Mexico instead. With his statements, President López Obrador is not just unwittingly (or knowingly) echoing China’s rhetoric, but is also publicly dismissing two decades of a policy of shared responsibility for drug production, trafficking, and consumption between United States and Mexico.
But this latest crisis is merely the visible tip of the iceberg of how Mexico eviscerated counternarcotics and law enforcement cooperation with the United States. Since President López Obrador came to office, he started systematically weakening that collaboration. From early on, he sought to withdraw from the Merida Initiative, the U.S.-Mexico security collaboration framework signed during the Felipe Calderón administration. And he sought to redefine the collaboration extremely narrowly as merely U.S. assistance to Mexico in reducing demand for drugs in Mexico and in the United States. (Many previous Mexican governments also wanted the United States to do the latter.)
After the United States arrested former Mexican Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos in October 2020 for cooperation with a vicious Mexican drug cartel, President López Obrador threatened to end all cooperation and expel from Mexico all U.S. law enforcement personnel. The U.S. government bent backwards to assuage the Mexican president’s fury, handing Cienfuegos back to Mexico where he was rapidly acquitted. But cooperation remained hollowed out and shackled by a new national security law on foreign agents in Mexico which the Mexican government passed that codified hollowed out cooperation and shackled U.S. law enforcement in Mexico. As a former high-level DEA official Matthew Donahue put it, since then and because of the continually immense level of corruption and cartel infiltration in Mexican security agencies, Mexican law enforcement spends more time surveilling DEA agents than it does cartel members.
With the threat of Mexico’s unilateral withdrawal from the Mérida Initiative, the United States government worked hard to negotiate a new security framework with Mexico – The U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities — in the fall of 2021. The United States went to great lengths to emphasize the public health and anti-money-laundering thrust the Mexican government sought. And on paper, the Framework reiterates all the elements of sensible counternarcotics cooperation, including law enforcement.
In practice, however, the Mexican government interprets the Framework as the United States reducing drug demand in the United States while increasing the interdiction of illicit money, Mexican fugitives in the Unites States, and weapons flows from the United States to Mexico, while Mexico does what it wants on the Mexican side of the border without the United States in on it.
U.S.-Mexico cooperation has limped since and the Mexican government has conducted some interdiction operations based on U.S. intelligence, U.S. law enforcement officials tell me, and some collaboration has persisted at the sub-federal level in Mexico. While the DEA still remains in deep freeze in Mexico, other U.S. law enforcement actors in Mexico have been able to induce some cooperation, with some Mexican government agencies even sharing some intelligence with the United States. But competent and determined Mexican law enforcement and justice officials have expressed to me their fears that if their superiors and high-level Mexican government officials learns of their committed efforts and collaboration with the United States, they will be sacked or posted to another job.
Meanwhile, as the Mexican government is denying that fentanyl is cooked in Mexico, the Mexican army has begun to cook its books about the interdiction undertaken in Mexico, as a Reuters investigative report shows. In advance of a July 2022 meeting of presidents Joe Biden and López Obrador, the Mexican military claimed to have busted hundreds of labs in Mexico between January 2019 and June 2022, raising the number from 232 to 873, by adding inactive labs and otherwise manipulating the data. As Guillermo Valdés, Mexico’s former civilian spy chief between 2007 and 2011, aptly put it, the obvious deceptive data manipulation was a “mockery.” All the more so, that the Mexican military too has begun pretending that all of the lab busts were of methamphetamine, and none of Mexico – despite its February 2023 announcement of the largest fentanyl lab bust.
Crucially, as DEA Administrator Anne Migram stated in her recent important Senate testimony, the Mexican government still refuses to share even just information and drug samples of finished drugs and precursors from its claimed seizures, while it is still not allowing the participation, even merely in an observer role, of DEA agents in the interdiction operations it claims it has conducted. It is also dragging its feet on extraditions to the United States.
There is no doubt that Mexico’s law enforcement cooperation with the United States has tanked and is troublingly inadequate.
Would designating the Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations help address the U.S. fentanyl crisis in the absence of Mexico’s cooperation? What other U.S. policy options are there? And what are the effects of the absence of Mexico’s policing strategy in Mexico? These issues will be explored in my next Mexico Today oped.
*Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Twitter: @VFelbabBrown