Cooperation in the drug war between the US and Mexico is at its lowest point in decades. What went wrong?

But the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is killing Americans fast, has dramatically raised the stakes. Washington is furious, and US lawmakers are calling for military action against the cartels – potential acts of war against the United States’ neighbor and biggest trading partner.

“We have a watershed here, and the watershed is 100,000 people killed a year,” Feeley said. “Yet when we most need cooperation in law enforcement and the rule of law, we have almost none.”

In 2021, 106,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the US, more than 70,000 of them largely due to fentanyl, according to the National Institutes of Health. More and more people are dying because they took drugs they didn’t know contained fentanyl. No community or demographic was spared.

National Institute on Drug Abuse

US officials and international experts say the vast majority of fentanyl sold in the US is produced in Mexico using precursors imported from China.

“The Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco cartel and their affiliates control the vast majority of the global fentanyl supply chain, from manufacturing to distribution,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told Congress last month. “The cartels are buying precursor chemicals in the People’s Republic of China, transporting the precursor chemicals from the PRC to Mexico, using the precursor chemicals to mass produce fentanyl, pressing the fentanyl into dummy pills, and using cars, trucks and other routes to transport the drugs from Mexico to the United States for distribution”.

She said it costs cartels just 10 cents to produce a fake fentanyl pill that sells in the United States for $10 to $30.

“The cartels are engaged in deliberate and calculated betrayals to deceive Americans and generate addictions for greater profits,” she said.

When he took office in 2018, López Obrador, a left-wing populist, announced that his policy towards drug cartels would be “hugs, not bullets”.

Last week, he told reporters: “Here, we don’t produce fentanyl and we don’t consume fentanyl.”

He blamed the US overdose crisis on the “social decay” of American society, adding: “We are deeply sorry for what is happening in the United States – but why don’t they fight the problem… and, more importantly, why do they not care for their youth?”

Fentanyl pills, methamphetamine and other drugs seized in Tempe, Arizona, on February 23.
Fentanyl pills, methamphetamine and other drugs seized in Tempe, Arizona, on February 23.Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes via Twitter

It wasn’t always like this. The relationship has slowly eroded since its heyday, when joint US-Mexico operations became commonplace in the 2000s under Presidents George Bush and Felipe Calderón. They started to fall when Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2013. After the US arrested Mexico’s defense minister on corruption charges in October 2020, López-Obrador ended what little cooperation was left, making it difficult for even DEA agents to stay in the country, Feeley and other experts said.

Mexico was so enraged by the arrest that then-Attorney General William Barr eventually dropped the case and returned the minister to Mexico, which exonerated him despite evidence that he was working on behalf of a violent drug cartel. Officials on both sides were furious about the whole affair, say current and former US officials.

a complicated relationship

In particular, US officials say that, in his comments on fentanyl, López Obrador was reacting to comments by Republican lawmakers in recent weeks calling for military action against drug traffickers in Mexico and proposing to designate drug cartels as terrorist organizations.

“Let’s unleash the fury and power of the United States against these cartels,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., who called on the president to “give the military authority to go after these organizations wherever they are. exist.”

The idea of ​​unilateral US military action against the cartels inside Mexico is anathema to almost any Mexican politician, let alone one who stakes his identity on defying the US.

The reality is that the US desperately needs Mexico’s cooperation on a range of issues, experts say, most notably the mass migration crisis on the US southern border. Mexico is the United States’ largest trading partner and its most common tourist destination, as well as being home to the largest community of American expatriates. The possibility of a US president taking military action in Mexico against the wishes of the government there seems extremely remote.

“We are not contemplating military action against Mexico,” Watson, a spokesperson for the NSC, said in a statement.

Everyone recognizes that the Biden administration is in a tight spot. He needs Mexico’s help for fentanyl, but he’s not getting much and he has very little clout to do anything about it.

A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment for this article. But the DEA’s Milgram detailed for Congress recently how Mexico refuses to share even basic data.

“We are not receiving information about seizures of precursor chemicals,” she said. “We are very concerned about the clandestine laboratories across Mexico and we have offered and continue to offer and we are ready to work in partnership with the Mexican authorities to dismantle and take down these clandestine laboratories across Mexico together and provide whatever service we can. .”

In addition, he added, Mexico is postponing dozens of US extradition requests.

“One of the things we expect Mexico to do is arrest and extradite more people to the United States,” she said. “Last year, Mexico extradited 24 drug-related defendants to the United States, but there are 232 drug-related defendants awaiting extradition.”

Donahue said corruption runs so deep in Mexico that Mexican police spend more time surveilling DEA agents than cartel members.

The problems are obvious. Much less clear is how to resolve them. One proposal, embraced by some Republican lawmakers and some pundits such as Feeley, is to designate the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Barr, the former attorney general, recently argued that the US should use the military to defeat the cartels, although he’s not sure if he was saying the US should do this even without Mexico’s permission, which could qualify as a act of war.

Feeley says the US cannot take unilateral action in Mexico, but he and others argue that a terrorist designation would allow prosecutors to more easily prosecute Americans aiding the cartels, using a charge of “material support for terrorism” that carries much more weight. stigma than a drug offense.

The Biden administration opposes the terrorism designation, a senior administration official said, but is not opposed to expanding legal authorities to target cartels.

“I think the Biden administration has been very patient with Mexico,” said Rudman of the Wilson Center. “Maybe sometimes too patient.”

Cooperation in the drug war between the US and Mexico is at its lowest point in decades. What went wrong?

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