In my previous column, I outlined how the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador steadily hollowed out U.S.-Mexico security and counternarcotics cooperation despite the vast flows of fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. In this column, I discuss why the insistence of the López Obrador administration that it alone will take care of counternarcotics measures in Mexico is problematic and lacks credibility. Drawing on my recent statement for the record for the U.S. House of Representatives hearing “Follow the Money: The CCP’s Business Model Fueling the Fentanyl Crisis,” I detail U.S. policy options vis-à-vis Mexico to induce better anti-drug and security cooperation.
The evisceration of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation by the López Obrador administration did not come out of the blue. It is part and parcel of the Mexican government’s abdication of security policies and internal responsibilities in Mexico.
At the beginning of his administration, President López Obrador announced a strategy of “hugs, not bullets” toward criminal groups that sought to emphasize socio-economic programs to deal with crime, and address the causes that propel young people to join criminal groups.
But that strategy never articulated any security or law enforcement policy toward criminal groups. Worse, as Mexican criminal groups have resorted to more and more brazen violence and impunity, dramatically expanded the range of legal economies they seek to take over and dominate, and intensified their efforts to influence elections, the López Obrador administration has persisted in its do-little policy.
Essentially, the Mexican president has hoped that if he does not interfere with Mexico’s criminal groups, they will eventually redivide Mexico’s economies and territories among themselves and violence will subside. That policy has been disastrous for many reasons: Most importantly, because it throws the rule of law in Mexico underneath the bus of impunity and subjects Mexican people, institutions, and legal economies to the tyranny of Mexican criminal groups. But also because Mexico’s out-of-control criminal market, plagued by a bipolar and increasingly internationalized war between the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, has little chance at such stabilization.
Like other Mexican presidents since the 1980s, López Obrador reshuffled Mexican security institutions. Most significantly, he abolished the Federal Police and created a National Guard staffed mostly by Mexican soldiers and police officers from the former Federal Police.
However, the National Guard is not and could never be an adequate replacement for the Federal Police. President López Obrador dismantled the Federal Police because of its infiltration by Mexican criminal groups, a systematic and pervasive problem for all of Mexico’s law enforcement forces for decades. Since the 1980s, the many iterations of law enforcement reforms have failed to expunge such infiltration and corruption across Mexican agencies.
However, the Federal Police, with all its faults, also had the greatest investigative capacities and mandates. The National Guard has no investigative mandates and very little capacity: It can only act as a deterrent force by patrolling the streets, something that it has not been effective at, or acting against crime in flagrancia. A Mexican lawyer in a conversation with me in 2021 summed it up well: “The National Guard are the most expensive mannequins in Mexico.”
Investigative authorities in Mexico are predominantly the role of the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR), the Federal Ministerial Police and state prosecutorial offices. But their capacities are limited, all are overwhelmed by the level of crime in Mexico, and all of them have also suffered from criminal infiltration despite decades-long efforts at reform.
Moreover, what remains unanswered and unexamined regarding the law enforcement reforms of the López Obrador administration is the question of what has happened to all of the equipment, technologies, and databases (such as Plataforma Mexico), and the intelligence that the United States provided the Federal Police with under the $3.5 billion aid package of the Mérida Initiative? Who owns this equipment now: the National Guard? The Mexican military? What accountability has there been for U.S. taxpayers’ money, especially as the López Obrador administration gutted meaningful counternarcotics cooperation even as over one hundred thousand Americans are dying of drug overdose and over thirty thousand Mexicans from homicides?
With the lack of will on the part of the Mexican government and the lack of capacities of Mexican law enforcement institutions to take on the cartels, it is not satisfactory to operate on President López Obrador’s preferred definition of U.S.-Mexico cooperation: the United States countering the flows of weapons and money to Mexico and Mexico doing what it wants, which is very little, in terms of domestic enforcement and with little transparency to boot.
On March 27, news reports began circulating that the United States and Mexico were on the verge of announcing a “new” deal concerning the fentanyl flows. Subsequent reporting from the end of March the U.S.-Mexico Synthetic Drug Conference in Mexico City rather suggested a hardening of Mexico’s noncooperation crouch.
But whether any eventually-announced renewed U.S.-Mexico cooperation will be more than thin gruel remains to be seen. If such “new” efforts mostly restate López Obrador’s interpretation of the Bicentennial Framework, cooperation will remain inadequate. To be watched is whether Mexico will become more reliable in sharing samples from declared precursor and fentanyl seizures, begins conducting controlled delivery operations, allows agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) at least to observe and ride along on interdiction raids, and starts more systematically acting on U.S. intelligence.
Also yet to be understood is what authorities, if any, the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agency has and will have to operate in Mexico. As with the DEA, will HSI be able to ride along on Mexican law enforcement operations or will it be mainly focused on countering weapons and financial flows to Mexico as Mexico prefers? After the López Obrador administration shackled DEA operations in Mexico (as I detailed in my previous column) the HSI has sometimes been talked about as a replacement for DEA operations. But it is not clear – and unlikely – that HSI can do so.
U.S. counternarcotics and law enforcement bargaining with Mexico is unfortunately constrained by the U.S. reliance on Mexico to stop migrant flows to the United States. If the United States were able to conduct a comprehensive immigration reform that would provide legal work opportunities to those currently seeking protection and opportunities in the United States through unauthorized migration, it would have far better leverage to induce meaningful and robust counternarcotics and law enforcement cooperation with Mexico. Nonetheless, even absent such reform, the United States can take impactful measures.
Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). An FTO designation would enable intelligence gathering and strike options of the United States military, such as against some fentanyl labs in Mexico or visible formations of large Mexican cartels – principally CJNG.
However, such unilateral U.S. military actions in Mexico would severely jeopardize relations with our vital trading partner and neighbor whose society is deeply intertwined with ours through familial connections. Calls for U.S. military strikes against fentanyl-linked targets in Mexico have already been condemned by Mexican government officials, politicians, and commentators.
Meanwhile, the number of available targets in Mexico would be limited. Most Mexican criminal groups do not gather in military-like visible formations. Many fentanyl labs already operate in buildings in populated neighborhoods of towns and cities where strikes would not be possible due to risks to Mexican civilians. Moreover, fentanyl labs would easily be recreated.
Nor would the FTO designation add authorities to the economic sanctions and anti-money laundering and financial intelligence tools that the already-in-place designation of Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) carries. The latter designation also carries extensive prohibitions against material support.
But an FTO designation could significantly limit and outright hamper U.S. foreign policy options and measures. Such prohibitions of material support for designated terrorist organizations have made it difficult for the United States to implement non-military and non-law-enforcement policy measures in a wide range of countries, making it a crime to provide assistance for legal job creation or reintegration support for even populations that had to endure the rule of brutal terrorist groups. To be in compliance with the material support laws, the United States and other entities must guarantee that none of their financial or material assistance is leaking out, including through coerced extortion, to those designated as FTOs.
Yet such controls would be a significant challenge in Mexico where many people and businesses in legal economies, such as agriculture, fisheries, logging, mining, and retail, have to pay extortion fees to Mexican criminal groups. The attempted controls could undermine the ability to trade with Mexico, as many U.S. businesses would not be able to determine whether their Mexican trading or production partner was paying extortion fees to Mexican cartels, and thus guarantee that they were not indirectly in violation of material support clauses.
The FTO designation could hamper the delivery of U.S. training, such as to local police forces or Mexican federal law enforcement agencies, if guarantees could not be established that such counterparts had no infiltration by criminal actors.
Instead, if the López Obrador administration continues to deny meaningful law enforcement cooperation, the United States may have to resort to significantly intensified border inspections, even if they substantially slow down the legal trade and cause substantial damage to Mexican goods, such as agricultural products. Yes, such measures would also cause economic pains in the United States, impacting U.S. trade with Mexico and supply chains. But the U.S. opioid epidemic, fueled by fentanyl, also carries large economic costs, in addition to killing tens of thousands of Americans yearly. In 2020, the latest estimate by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee put the cost of the opioid epidemic in the United States at nearly US $1.5 trillion, 37 percent higher than a 2017 estimate of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In contrast, in 2019, U.S. goods and services trade with Mexico totaled an estimated US $677.3 billion , with imports from Mexico $387.8 billion. With higher and growing U.S. yearly deaths since 2020, the cost of the U.S. opioid epidemic is even higher now. Thus, even the economic impact measures clearly imply that major additional efforts to save U.S. lives from lethal overdose and countering fentanyl flows are imperative.
Under optimal circumstances, U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation would be robust enough to make legal border crossings fast and efficient. Joint fentanyl and precursor busts and seizures could take place near production labs and at warehouses. Joint inspections of legal cargo heading to the United States could take place close to production and loading sites in Mexico. Under the Mérida Initiative, the Obama administration, in fact, sought to develop along with Mexico such systems of legal cargo inspection inside Mexico and away from the border.
But if Mexico refuses to act as a reliable law enforcement partner to counter the greatest drug epidemic in North America, which is also decimating lives in Mexico, the United States may have to focus much intensified inspections at the border, despite the economic pains.
Furthermore, the United States can also develop packages of leverage, including indictment portfolios, against Mexican national security and law enforcement officials and politicians who undermine and sabotage rule of law cooperation with the United States. Instead of giving up on the type of arrests like that of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos in October 2020, the United States could double up on them.
The structural characteristics of synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, including the ease of developing similar, but not scheduled, synthetic drugs and their new precursors, pose immense structural obstacles to controlling their supply.
U.S. domestic prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement measures are fundamental and indispensable to countering the devastating fentanyl crisis.
However, given the extent and lethality of the synthetic opioid epidemic in North America and its likely eventual spread to other parts of the world, even supply control measures with partial and limited effectiveness can save lives and thus need to be designed as smartly and robustly as possible. They require reliable international cooperation.
The sabotage of that counternarcotics cooperation with the United States by the López Obrador administration should not be acceptable.
* 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