Drugs, guns and money: US, Mexico step up cooperation against cross-border crime

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The United States and Mexico took an important step toward restoring better cooperation against cross-border crime today with cabinet-level U.S.-Mexico high-level security dialogue and agreement to flesh out a new framework for cooperation in the months ahead. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland led the U.S. team in Mexico City. 

This follows months of quiet talks to rebuild trust and agree on an agenda for collaboration against the smuggling of drugs, guns and illicit funds as part of a broader security framework. Such deadly commerce provides billions of dollars in profits to criminal groups and kills tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border through drug overdoses, homicides and a trail of corruption. 

There are serious challenges to improving cooperation in ways that truly increase pressure on the transnational criminal groups, but the effort to do so is worthwhile given the high stakes for both countries. The Biden administration has been working with Mexican counterparts to reopen paths for collaboration. Both sides used the June visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to signal agreement to hold a cabinet-level dialogue to discuss a shared vision for security aimed at reducing homicides and drug-related deaths, as well as countering the illicit forces that drive them.

Following the Harris visit, Mexico’s foreign minister publicly signaled the end of the U.S.-Mexico Merida program on security cooperation, but he also flagged willingness to work cooperatively to reduce illicit arms flows to criminal groups in Mexico, to reduce homicides, and to improve security at Mexico’s ports to reduce imports of precursor chemicals into Mexico that are used to produce synthetic drugs such as fentanyl. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan led a team to Mexico in August to pursue agreement for a renewed dialogue, forging the path to this week’s ministerial meeting and a “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities.” 

The need is urgent. On Sept. 30, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Anne Milgram announced a new enforcement surge against “the flood of fentanyl and fentanyl-laced pills across the United States” that has been the primary driver of the increase in U.S. overdose deaths, which totaled some 93,000 in 2020. The vast majority of synthetic opioids powering this lethal toll are being produced by Mexican criminal drug networks, according to the DEA.  

Almost simultaneously, a new index of global organized crime released on Sept. 28 concludes that Mexico has the worst criminal market scores among the 193 countries evaluated. The index includes such areas as trade in synthetic drugs, heroin, cocaine and arms. Mexico is also ranked as having the fourth worst criminality scores among the world’s countries. Mexico’s homicides remained near record highs with some 36,500 violent homicides in 2020, despite the pandemic, and much of the violence is fueled by fighting among criminal groups. 

These tragic findings underscore the strategic interests of Mexico and the United States to find an improved approach to cooperation against cross-border crime. Both countries need serious, effective collaboration between their law enforcement and justice agencies to reduce illicit trade and bring more of those responsible to justice.

During the past three years, U.S.-Mexico cooperation against organized crime groups deteriorated significantly.  In late 2019, President Trump threatened to designate Mexican drug groups as terrorists after the murder of U.S. citizen women and children in northern Mexico.  Even though his threats spurred some initial additional collaboration, bilateral cooperation took a serious downturn in late 2020 when the U.S. arrested a senior retired Mexican military officer accused of having ties to drug smugglers. Mexico subsequently approved a new law sharply limiting operational law enforcement cooperation, especially with the DEA.  

Even before these events, however, the Mexican administration had resisted efforts to review and improve existing anti-crime cooperation mechanisms, criticizing the Merida Initiative, which has provided the umbrella for joint work on public security issues since 2008.

The devastation on both sides of the border got worse, however. The numbers of homicides in Mexico has remained at or near record levels for three years, despite Mexican government reforms and policy changes. The number of drug-overdose deaths in the U.S. has soared, and seizures of lethal drugs at the U.S.-Mexico border have continued to rise.  

Coming out of today’s security discussion, the two sides will need sustained hard work among officials to build much stronger day-to-day law enforcement and justice cooperation between key U.S. and Mexican agencies, including on extraditions, information sharing and money laundering. Over time, that cooperation should help reduce the amounts of fentanyl, heroin and other lethal drugs moving into the U.S. and the firearms and money flowing from the U.S. into Mexico and increase criminal convictions. The U.S. also can provide specific support aimed at bolstering Mexican capacities in the process. 

Today’s meeting follows the launch of a new U.S.-Mexico high-level economic dialogue, as well as closer cooperation on migration, including the surge of Haitian migrants, and on COVID-19 vaccinations.

The tough law enforcement and justice work needed to weaken the criminal groups will take time. It requires rebuilding trust and confidence. Skillful leadership and patience on both sides is needed to agree on an action plan over the next three months and to sustain progress, but by establishing mechanisms and processes that foster regular dialogue and problem-solving, such progress is possible.  

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.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Antony Blinken Donald Trump Drug Enforcement Administration Illegal drug trade Jake Sullivan Merrick Garland Mexican Drug War Mérida Initiative

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