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Arrests should boost US-Mexico cooperation against drug trafficking

Arrests should boost US-Mexico cooperation against drug trafficking
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The recent U.S. arrests of former Mexican ministers of defense and public security on drug trafficking charges are an opportunity to boost the fight against cross-border crime groups.  

Those charged are innocent until proven guilty, but such arrests and judicial proceedings against official corruption are blows to the criminal groups receiving protection. 

In the case of U.S.-Mexico cooperation, these criminal proceedings should spark the governments to adopt improved oversight mechanisms to vet officials against the criminal groups smuggling massive amounts of drugs, arms and money between the two countries.

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Certainly, the arrests of former senior officials who were key partners for the United States underscore the challenges to building trust in the struggle against powerful transnational criminal groups who feed drug addiction in the U.S. and violence in Mexico. They are a shock to those of us who worked with those now charged.

However, the criminal charges also are a call for Mexico and the United States to use the best international practices and technologies to crack down on criminals and corrupt officials, no matter where they are in the official hierarchy or on which side of the border they live.

If done well, arrests and prosecution of senior officials for working with organized crime can be as effective as arrests of the criminal high-value targets themselves. Going after corrupt officials with successful law enforcement actions makes “narcos” are more vulnerable, deprived of enablers and protectors.  

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to clean up key institutions following the former defense minister’s arrest. Beyond rooting out individuals, however, actions should include rethinking current practices and implementing more effective mechanisms to uncover and act against corruption at all levels. The systems in place do not work well, despite many efforts to make them stronger.  

Effectively fighting corruption has to be a priority for both Mexico and the United States. The neighbors are vitally important to each other, as evidenced by their massive legitimate trade relationship. The criminals have benefited from national differences over law enforcement practices.  This is the moment to work as one team.

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Improving U.S.-Mexico cooperation requires better systems to prevent and root out criminal penetration of law enforcement, security and judicial entities. This means better screening and stronger oversight. No one should be exempt from thorough vetting or from punishment, if corruption is detected. This will encourage better information sharing.

Neither the U.S. nor Mexico can completely eliminate corruption or intimidation by criminals.  However, both can learn from these ongoing cases and establish more effective mechanisms   under which officials at all levels, including the top, face regular, independent checks assessing their trustworthiness — and, if needed, rapid corrective action.  

Battling cross-border criminal groups is hard. These groups gain an estimated $10 billion to $30 billion yearly from drug smuggling. That gives the criminals plentiful resources to pay for corruption. Many studies have proposed steps to improve U.S.-Mexico anti-crime cooperation, but progress has been slow, even if evident over the past year.

Urgent improvements are needed. U.S. authorities report border seizures of synthetic opioids are up 71 percent in fiscal year 2020. U.S. drug overdose deaths have risen to over 70,000, with 50,000 involving opioids. In Mexico, homicides have been at record levels for the past three years, with over 34,000 in 2019, and the pace continues in 2020, fueled by transnational criminal groups. 

The former Mexican ministers and a senior official recently arrested by U.S. authorities are innocent until proven guilty, but the arrests undermine the confidence vital for cooperative operations against criminals. They demoralize dedicated U.S. and Mexican officials risking their lives to counter the drug trade. Their safety is undermined by corruption, and communities and families on both sides of the border pay a high price.

During my years as ambassador to Mexico (2011-2015), my colleagues and I worried about possible penetration by drug organizations of Mexico’s government services. We received unverified reports of illicit payments and relationships that helped protect criminal groups. We worked with Mexican civilian and military officials to bring people to justice. We urged the Mexican government to improve its vetting and screening of officials. We encouraged better training, oversight, investigation and prosecution systems and the adoption of international norms. We supported such efforts with bilateral assistance programs, as well as investigations and court cases in the U.S. against traffickers and corrupt officials wherever they were found. 

We had sincere Mexican partners, but much work remained when I ended my time in Mexico. The charges against senior officials with whom I worked drive that message home.  

The recent arrests are a bugle call to adopt better practices to fight official corruption, whether it is tied to drug trafficking or not. Mexico should learn from the cases and apply international best practices to adopt stronger oversight mechanisms. There should be no exceptions to oversight. Stronger systems rooting out corrupt officials will make it harder for criminals to operate.

Avoiding misplaced arguments over sovereignty, the U.S. and Mexico must learn from the arrests, rethink existing procedures and apply best practices and available technologies to enhance cooperation. This is vital to strengthen the mutual trust needed for more effective work against the deadly cross-border criminal organizations.

Earl Anthony Wayne was U.S. ambassador to Mexico, is co-chair of the Wilson Center Mexico Institute Advisory Board, and a diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.