Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Well Are the U.S. & Mexico Cooperating?

Photo of Blinken in Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Alicia Bárcena was among the Mexican officials who met with a U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week in Mexico City

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to Mexico City on Oct. 4 to meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and other top officials to discuss migration and the trafficking of weapons and drugs including fentanyl. What did the two countries’ officials accomplish during the meetings? How well are the United States and Mexico cooperating on measures to fight the illegal trafficking of drugs and weapons, and how much political will exists in the two countries to make policy changes? How will the presidential campaigns in both countries affect their cooperation on migration as well as the trafficking of weapons and drugs?

Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and co-chair of its Mexico Institute Advisory Board: “The United States and Mexico are trying to maneuver through seriously difficult challenges involving migration, public security, border management and trade, while both countries prepare for presidential and congressional elections in 2024. Several issues are already hot-button topics for Republicans, with some politicians offering unrealistic and dangerous solutions on drug trafficking and migration. Mexico’s president fuels concerns with sharp criticisms of U.S. policies and dubious assertions, including that deadly fentanyl is not produced in Mexico, despite much contrary evidence. Over 70,000 Americans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2022, and southwest border fentanyl seizures rose more than 500 percent since fiscal year 2020. Last week’s High-Level Security Dialogue sought to demonstrate that constructive cooperation is underway to manage the massive flow of migrants again headed northward and to slow trafficking of fentanyl into the United States and illegal arms trafficking into Mexico. U.S. and Mexican ministers pledged reinforced collaboration, praised ongoing cooperation and tried to solidify understanding for the work ahead. Anti-crime cooperation has improved since 2021. Current collaboration on migration is essential. However, when Mexico’s security minister denied that fentanyl is produced in Mexico, the statement highlighted that misunderstanding remains. Much work is still required to solidify the law enforcement, intelligence and justice collaboration needed to take down cross-border criminal networks. Fentanyl seizures at the border rose more than 80 percent in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2023, while migrant border encounters have increased again. Both governments need to demonstrate convincing results and skillful management to avoid serious damage to bilateral relations in the year ahead.”

Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America: “Contradictions by and between the U.S. and Mexican governments were on full display during last week’s High-Level Security Dialogue, including insistence by Mexico’s public security minister that fentanyl is not produced in Mexico, as well as U.S. announcements of counterproductive border and deportation measures that contrast with prior Biden administration messaging or decisions. The delegations shared data points such as quantities of drugs seized; less evident were signs of new initiatives or evolution in addressing collusion, impunity and other structural factors that enable organized crime in Mexico. Meanwhile, as reporters in both countries pressed officials on the unchecked growth of the power and roles of Mexico’s military—implicated in a series of human rights scandals in recent months —U.S. officials continued a pattern of avoiding criticism of the military or questions about the health of Mexico’s democracy. The upcoming electoral season will only increase pressure for authorities to announce short-term results or policies that project an image of being ‘tough’ on drugs and border control, which tend not to align with the measures needed to actually advance the well-being of the affected populations.” 

Gary J. Hale, nonresident fellow in drug policy and Mexico studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy: “The bilateral meeting recently held in Mexico City will not likely reduce production of fentanyl or human trafficking by Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). President López Obrador (AMLO) denied on March 10 that Mexican TCOs produce fentanyl when he said, ‘Here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl.’ Mexican officials further muddled the issue last week by contradicting each other about whether fentanyl is produced in Mexico or simply transshipped through the country. The U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities of 2021 accedes to AMLO’s desire that more emphasis be given to the demand side of the threat assessment formulation by focusing on drug abuse and rehabilitation, and attributes lesser importance on the supply side by failing to vigorously confront TCOs. By focusing on demand, the framework has created conditions for TCOs to continue their crimes with little interference. When the framework and high-level meetings are held against the restrictions that Mexico has placed on U.S. law enforcement agencies operating in Mexico, diplomacy has not translated into meaningful cooperation at the operational level. The Morena party presidential candidate is favored to be elected and will likely continue AMLO’s policies, which turn a blind eye to TCO drug production and allow for those cartels to move continuous waves of migrants through Mexico en route the United States. Similarly, the results of the U.S. election will not affect Mexico’s position, regardless of the proposed military intervention that hawkish U.S. lawmakers are threatening.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution: “Despite the continual sotto voce approach of the Biden administration, Mexico’s anti-crime cooperation remains inadequate. Even during the High-Level Security Dialogue (HLSD), Mexican Interior Minister Rosa Rodríguez repeated López Obrador’s falsity that no fentanyl is synthetized in Mexico. Yes, with U.S. intelligence, Mexico did arrest and recently extradite one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ovidio Guzmán, to the United States. But extraditions cannot distract attention from the lack of other needed and collapsed aspects of cooperation—most importantly, a meaningful and effective commitment by Mexico to dismantle drug-trafficking and criminal organizations and a return to joint on-the-ground operations by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agents. A proposal by the Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena to establish within the newly launched Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats a subgroup to trace precursor smuggling, could put necessary pressure on China to act against trafficking. But smuggling before Mexico’s borders shouldn’t be because of Mexico’s lack of will and capacity to track precursor and drug movements within Mexico, let alone to conduct sting operations and dismantle networks. The introduction of migration discussions to the HLSD agenda is not a good development. While the issue is a political priority for the Biden administration, combining the anti-crime discussions with migration only reinforces a belief in the Mexican government that it can continue to balk at anti-crime efforts as long as it reduces the flow of migrants to the United States.”

Raúl Benítez Manaut, researcher at the Center for Research on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM): “The visit of high-ranking national security officials from the United States last week demonstrates the difficult and tense state of bilateral relations, principally in the drug arena. The United States insists that fentanyl is manufactured in clandestine laboratories in Mexico. The Mexican government contradicts that. The country’s army and navy have statistics of the labs in Sinaloa, Jalisco and Michoacán, in which they’ve destroyed labs. It’s regularly mentioned that the predominant criminal groups in Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, own those labs. But President López Obrador has denied that fentanyl is produced in Mexico. In the meeting on Oct. 4, the North American team insisted that it will continue to detain ‘los chapitos,’ to continue with the decapitation of the Sinaloa Cartel. Nevertheless, the same strategy is not applied toward the Jalisco Cartel. An important reflection that must be done is that studies of those who have died because of violence in Mexico have increased, while deaths from drug use in the United States have also increased. This tells us that the strategy is a mess, if we take into account the victims due to the drug war in Mexico and the U.S. government’s inability to reduce consumption. Finally, it must be mentioned that both countries will have presidential elections next year. The issue of drugs is a substantial part of both campaigns, especially in the United States, where Republicans face very real pressure to harden the discourse against Mexico. This foreshadows a 2024 with great factionalism in the issues of security for both governments.”

Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content