A better way forward than Mexico’s new anti-crime legislation

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Mexico’s Congress passed legislation on Dec.15 that restricts the work of foreign government employees in a way that could greatly inhibit U.S.-Mexico cooperation against powerful cross-border criminal organizations, which are moving drugs northward to the U.S. and arms and illicit proceeds to Mexico. President López Obrador signed the law and it took effect on Dec. 19.

Before this grows into a very damaging bilateral problem, the two governments urgently need to engage to address the serious and legitimate issues at stake and find workable solutions through private negotiations.

This legislation was sparked by the arrest and release of former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos in the U.S. on charges of aiding a drug cartel. Mexican commentators and officials cited the surprise arrest of Cienfuegos as a threat to Mexican sovereignty.  

The rushed manner in which the law was proposed and passed, however, did not allow for serious consideration of its ramifications for U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation, which is aimed at reducing the violence and damage inflicted on both countries’ citizens by criminal groups. The new law also takes attention away from whether senior Mexican officials have been compromised by cooperating with criminal groups and the Mexican government’s increased reliance on the military for public security and other functions. 

While discussion of the law has cited concerns about U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and FBI agents, the law also could have serious effects on other U.S.-Mexico cooperation involving law enforcement authorities, including customs issues (e.g., trade pre-clearance), dealing with migration, or countering human trafficking and forced labor. This spillover could be very costly if it affects cross-border trade, especially if the U.S. were to decide it needs more thorough checks on cargo and vehicles for smuggled drugs entering the country from Mexico, because of reduced bilateral cooperation. The U.S. warned in September that Mexico could face penalties if anti-drug cooperation was not sustained.

In reality, the most serious threat to sovereignty for both Mexico and the United States is the ability of criminal groups to move massive amounts of drugs, arms and money between the two countries. In the process, these criminals assert effective control in their base areas and along shipment routes, fueling violence and corruption along the way. The drugs they smuggle lead to many thousands of overdose deaths in the United States and the financing of illegal arms and money flows to Mexico.  

These enormous real-life problems must be addressed effectively and not allowed to grow because of a lack of effective U.S.-Mexico cooperation. It appears that Mexico’s new law will make it much harder for U.S. and Mexican officials to counter those problems because of additional restrictions on those who would try to cooperate and the threat of imposing punishments on officials from both countries.

There are legitimate concerns to be addressed about proper respect for the authority of both federal governments in the effort to counter criminal groups, but those concerns should be worked out in ways that enhance, rather than restrict, the ability of law enforcement professionals to work effectively against powerful and wealthy criminal groups. The Mexican law effectively short-circuits a constructive review of bilateral cooperation and the mechanisms needed for effective cooperation. Many observers have called for such a review of cooperation for several years.

It is almost impossible to protect confidential information and leads for investigation if a large group of people needs to be informed of the content of meetings and regular written reports circulated to different ministries, which contain this confidential information. This will result in leaks and reluctance to share information, which long has been a serious problem in U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. Yet, this is what the new law apparently requires. This becomes even more problematic if the information being circulated suggests that someone higher within the hierarchy might be compromised by a criminal group.  

A more effective and proven way forward would be to have fully vetted and trusted units or task forces working together in both countries to pursue investigations within a framework negotiated between the governments. Such a system would better expose any serious danger of criminal groups trying to penetrate law enforcement, judicial and security agencies on either side of the border. That system should be reinforced by a return to multi-agency, government-to-government public security dialogues at senior levels, which used to take place regularly to sort through difficult issues. 

Mexicans often cite the principle of “nonintervention” when talking about relations with the U.S. President López Obrador cited this principle in a recent letter to President-elect Biden. However, the reality is that each neighbor intervenes massively in the other country by the nature of the interconnected relationship that exists. 

It is important to recognize that no other country in the world “intervenes” more in the daily lives of Americans than does Mexico — and the same is true for Mexico, as highlighted by its 50 U.S. consulates and the millions of Mexican citizens living in the U.S. This is true on issues of trade and migration, as well as illicit commerce. (The new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement imposes a series of binding obligations on all three countries.) Heroin, synthetic opioids, methamphetamines and other drugs move in large amounts from Mexico to the U.S.; flows of particularly lethal synthetic opioids continued to grow significantly over the past year. Mexico surpasses all other countries in this kind of terrible impact on U.S. society. 

And, the United States has a similarly costly impact on Mexico, via the money and arms that drug groups bring back to Mexico, spreading violence, death and corruption. Neither country can escape the impact of being neighbors, nor can they solve these problems by themselves. This is why the solutions lie in more effective ways to help each other, not in further limiting trust and cooperation.

A number of factors spurred the Mexican government and its Congress to move so rapidly to pass this law, but now wisdom must prevail. Mexican officials should sit down with U.S. counterparts to produce workable solutions that put pressure on the real culprits — the criminal groups and those in government whom they compromise to support them, whether Mexican or American.  

Former ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Editor’s note: This piece was edited after publication.

Tags Crime in Mexico Mexican Drug War Opiods Organized crime

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