Urgent: We need better US-Mexico cooperation against cross-border crime

Police work the area of a massive shootout in Parangaricutiro, Mexico, on March 10, 2022. Authorities said five suspected drug cartel gunmen have been killed in a massive firefight between gangs.

One of the most urgent challenges to U.S.-Mexico relations is reducing cross-border crime and the harm it is doing to Mexican and American communities. So states a report released this month, under the sponsorship of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute by 13 former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico and Mexican ambassadors to the United States.

Tens of thousands of Americans and Mexicans are dying or suffering from overdoses of drugs smuggled from Mexico into the U.S., and from the violence fueled by Mexico’s drug-trafficking criminal groups. Over the past year, government cooperation has improved with a new High-Level Security Dialogue framework and ambitious goals and objectives to guide law enforcement, justice, financial cooperation, community safety and health aspects of this lethal cross-border commerce. 

However, we need more progress in reducing the deadly effects of these criminal activities, including measurable metrics to demonstrate success in reducing illicit smuggling, arms trafficking, money laundering and related violence and deaths. The ambassadors’ public security recommendations emphasize the importance of having a shared, detailed analysis of the situation that can be the basis for comprehensive, long-term cooperation, which too often was not the case in past efforts.

There is also a vital need to rebuild trust. In recent years, U.S.-Mexico developments have weakened mutual confidence and cooperation. Greater sharing of intelligence is necessary to be effective against criminal groups. However, the ambassadors warn in their report that “without trust and means to ensure protection of information, however, there will not be and should not be increased sharing of information.” Sadly, such trust-based cooperation between U.S. and Mexican agencies has suffered greatly and remains legally limited in Mexico. Recent reports suggest that mistrust remains among agencies on the front lines.

The ambassadors emphasize the advantages of deploying newer technology along the U.S.-Mexico border, where over $1 million worth of legitimate commerce passes each minute.  At present, border facilities and technology on both sides fall short. New U.S. border infrastructure funding could help address the problems.

Importantly, there must be regular meetings from the cabinet level down to measure and evaluate progress and encourage better public understanding of the security landscape and “accountability” up and down the chains of authority.

These recommendations — along with the other ideas shared in the report for strengthening U.S.-Mexico ties — provide solid direction for the two governments moving forward in 2022. It’s heartening to see progress in agreeing on new mechanisms and shared goals for public security, but it is not clear that common metrics or detailed action plans are being implemented, and new evidence underscores the urgency of action. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced, for example, that over 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, up 15 percent from 2020. Of this total, over 71,000 overdose deaths were from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioid-related deaths jumped 23 percent in 2021. Most illegal fentanyl enters the U.S. from Mexico, according to the Commission on Combatting Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.  

Improving practical U.S.-Mexico law enforcement and justice cooperation is clearly more important than ever. The Biden administration recognizes this in its National Drug Control Strategy, which lays out steps to deal with the overdose crises, but more effective coordination with Mexico remains a pillar for success. 

In Mexico, homicides are down slightly from an all-time high of more than 34,000 in 2019, but the outlook remains bleak. A report by the Global Initiative Against Organized Crime, for example, ranks Mexico as the fourth worst of 193 countries studied for overall criminality, with particularly bad scores for “Mafia-style” groups and “criminal networks,” as well as for synthetic drug trade. Mexico just revised upward its list of missing persons to 100,000, growing over 25,000 in the last two years. As of December 2020, Mexico had an estimated 350,000 internally displaced persons because of conflict or violence. Not surprisingly, many Mexicans do not feel secure in their hometowns and see public security as a top national issue.

While alarming trends have been evident for years, 2018-2021 was marked by stagnant and deteriorating bilateral cooperation, and rising ill will on both sides.

The Biden administration introduced course corrections with a wary Mexican administration led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who was skeptical of bilateral public security cooperation under the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative begun in 2008. The rebuilding effort led to an October 2021 cabinet-level “High-Level Security Dialogue” and a new “Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities” to replace the Merida Initiative. The two governments issued a fulsome joint statement with a comprehensive set of commitments, and then negotiated and released shared objectives in January 2022. It is not clear if this progress has included detailed agreement on how to achieve the goals or to measure progress.

More comprehensive U.S.-Mexico collaboration is welcome. Dedicated officials from both countries are working to counter the criminal groups responsible for violence and deaths on both sides of the border. But, as the former ambassadors make clear, the U.S. and Mexican governments must demonstrate that they are rebuilding mutual trust and making the practical progress needed to counter these voracious criminal enterprises.

Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, is board co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and a Distinguished Diplomat at American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Criminal Justice