Latin American illicit drug business

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Problem: Weak Mexico-US cooperation

Theoretically at least, greater control and reduction of the fentanyl business can be achieved by closer cooperation along the three bilateral sides of the US-China-Mexico triangle. As we have seen, however, US-China cooperation reached a peak in 2019, and since 2020 it has run into serious difficulties. Because of entrenched super-power rivalry, it is unlikely to improve in the near future. China-Mexico cooperation, for its part, is likely to remain at fairly low levels. Bilateral trade is limited, and diplomatic relations have traditionally been given low priority by both governments.

In what seems to have been largely a public relations exercise, in April 2023 Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) wrote an open letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, urging him to control the flow of fentanyl while at the same time heavily criticising US anti-narcotics policies for making “rude threats” against Mexico. In the letter AMLO said the US was “Unjustly…blaming us for problems that in large measure have to do with their loss of values, their welfare crisis”. AMLO went on to claim that “These positions are in themselves a lack of respect and a threat to our sovereignty, and moreover they are based on an absurd, manipulative, propagandistic and demagogic attitude”. It was only further down in the body of the letter that AMLO said he was making his plea to Xi “to ask you for humanitarian reasons to help us by controlling the shipments of fentanyl”.

There was no immediate direct public response from Beijing which has repeatedly downplayed any involvement in the fentanyl trade. But a Chinse foreign ministry spokesperson later said, “there is no such things as illegal trafficking of fentanyl between China and Mexico”. That stance has remained in place, despite Mexico reporting the following month that a shipment from China’s Qingdao port with hidden cargo containing both fentanyl and methamphetamines had been detected in the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas.

As things stand, China has little incentive to crack down on precursor chemical exports to Mexico. Mexico in turn, has, under its current populist-left government, largely avoided cracking down on the cartels, and, despite AMLO’s letter-writing, has shown little real intention of asking China to rein in its precursor exporters.

That, therefore, leaves US-Mexico bilateral cooperation as the only remaining avenue for improvement. Theoretically speaking, prospects for cooperation on this axis should be good. The countries share deep historical links. A significant part of the US population is of Mexican heritage. The two countries are neighbours and have long-standing mutual interests around trade, investment, energy, migration, and environmental issues such as water resources and climate change. Although with mixed outcomes, there is also a multi-decades long history of collaboration on security and narcotics control.

The problem however is that under AMLO’s six-year presidency starting in 2018 and running through to next year (2024) Mexico has shown little interest in meaningfully stepping up security collaboration with its northern neighbour. AMLO is best known for supporting a domestic security policy dubbed abrazos no balazos (hugs, not bullets). This was initially welcomed by many security analysts as representing an overdue and legitimate recognition of the need to tackle not just the violent symptoms but also the underlying structural causes of cartel membership and criminality among young males – poverty, inequality, and the lack of employment opportunities.

However, with a slow-growing economy and limited improvements in social conditions, the policy and the rhetoric around it has begun to be seen as no more than a rhetorical smoke screen, intended to provide cover for ‘business as usual’, the fact that compared to its predecessors this government is doing nothing new in terms of security policy or of reducing cartel violence. Despite AMLO’s earlier criticism of the army’s propensity for human rights violations and brutality, the government has radically expanded the role of the army, and created a new, militarised National Guard. But it has been unwilling or unable to roll back the power and territorial control exercised by top cartels such as Sinaloa and CJNG. It has also remained deeply suspicious of collaboration with the US.

With hindsight another key turning point may have come on 15 October 2020. On that day former Mexican defence minister General Salvador Cienfuegos (in office 2012-2018) was arrested by the US authorities on arrival at Los Angeles airport and charged with drug and money-laundering offences. Even though Cienfuegos had served in the preceding centre-right government, often criticised by AMLO, the new president was reportedly furious that he had not been given advance warning of the arrest or indictment. Media reports said that, in response, the Mexican government threatened to withdraw all security cooperation and expel DEA officials from the country. In the event, and to avoid this outcome, a deal was done. Despite promising to take a hard line against Mexico, the government of Donald Trump, then in office (2017-2021), essentially caved in and accepted the Mexican ultimatum. The US dropped the charges and released Cienfuegos who immediately flew back to Mexico. While the Mexican attorney general’s office made a public show of reviewing the US allegations against Cienfuegos, it all came to nothing. By January 2021 all charges were dropped.

The Cienfuegos affair seems to have led to increased mutual suspicion and a lasting reduction in security cooperation between the two countries. Felbab-Brown says that US-Mexico counternarcotics efforts have been “hollowed out” and “eviscerated”. In December 2020, Mexico approved a security law requiring foreign agents (such as DEA members) to share all information with their Mexican counterparts. The law also removed their immunity from prosecution. Given fears that some Mexican law enforcement bodies have been infiltrated by the cartels, the effect of the new legislation has been to radically reduce information sharing.  

Monthly U.S.-Mexico border fentanyl seizures, by sector

Source: WOLA

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