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The urgent need to bolster US-Mexico security cooperation

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Cross-border criminal organizations are doing great harm to the United States and Mexico. The facts on the ground regarding smuggling of drugs, arms and money demand quick, effective action to strengthen coordinated U.S.-Mexico work against these transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).  

Recent visits to Mexico by U.S. Attorney General William Barr signal that the two governments are moving toward closer collaboration, after a bumpy year of cooperation against cross-border crime, highlighted by President Trump’s threat to designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

Mexico suffers from serious crime and violence, much of it fueled by groups involved in illicit cross-border crime. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, inherited a deteriorating public security situation in 2018. During 2019, however, Mexico set a new record for violent homicides with 34,500 killed. A December Mexican government survey found 72.9 percent of respondents said the city where they live is unsafe. 

For the U.S., smuggled drugs fuel thousands of deaths from overdoses, particularly from fentanyl and its analogues. Mexico remains a major source and transit country for smuggled fentanyl, methamphetamines and heroin. U.S. customs reports drug seizures up 28 percent over the past year.

AMLO has committed to demonstrating a new approach to fighting crime, saying he would go after the root causes, using social programs and reforms. “Hugs, not bullets” is his slogan. He has been critical of the U.S.-Mexico “Merida” program, which served as the umbrella for collaboration and U.S. assistance.  

Though AMLO was not supportive of crafting an agreed bilateral plan, U.S.-Mexico collaboration continued last year on a low-key basis. Among U.S. law enforcement agencies, however, frustration grew as Mexican criminal organizations smuggled large quantities of drugs to the U.S., where drug sales provide billions of dollars to the criminal groups.

The Trump administration’s priorities were on reducing migration flows, not anti-drug work, however. As the numbers of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. border grew dramatically, President Trump threatened to impose additional tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. This generated urgent Mexico-U.S. negotiations and an agreement in June that Mexico would significantly step up enforcement at its borders. Mexico agreed to allow migrants to wait there for the U.S. to rule on asylum requests.  

By the end of 2019, the number of migrants apprehended at the U.S. southern border had dropped by 75 percent from the May high point. Some 56,000 were waiting in Mexico for asylum decisions, and Mexico had turned around more than 150,000 migrants heading north. Mexico did this by deploying 25,000 of its new National Guard to intercept migrants, diverting the Guard from its public security mission. The U.S. continues to press Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants, including those from Mexico.

Cross-border drug smuggling grew, however. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a significant increase in seizures of illicit drugs, including an 80 percent increase in fentanyl seizures, and violent crime in Mexico headed higher.

In August, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum on Major Drug Transit and Producing Countries warning that without improved cooperation the U.S. would consider classifying Mexico as not upholding its international drug control commitments and thus be subject to sanctions. 

This helped spark the creation of a Mexico-U.S. High-level Security Group to address problem areas, including arms smuggling from the U.S., drug trafficking, border security and financial crime. The two governments agreed on a plan to go after arms smuggling at the border. However, U.S. officials privately complained that cooperation was not progressing sufficiently on issues related to drug smuggling operations.   

Brazen criminal acts then pushed the two governments toward better collaboration. In October, a badly botched Mexican government attempt to capture one of El Chapo’s sons, wanted for drug trafficking to the U.S., highlighted the power of criminal groups and weaknesses in Mexico’s security strategy. In early November, criminal gangs ambushed and killed nine U.S-Mexican dual-citizen women and children in Sonora, Mexico, sparking outrage on both sides of the border.  

After those killings, President Trump threatened to designate Mexican cartels as FTOs. That designation could have brought a range of new U.S. options into play. Many U.S. agencies did not favor this designation because of negative consequences for counter-terrorism policy, counter-narcotics cooperation and migration policy. Nevertheless, from a Mexican perspective the threat set off alarms.

In early December, Trump pulled back from the FTO threat, citing a promise to improve anti-crime cooperation from AMLO, and dispatched Barr to Mexico. Mexico subsequently extradited 10 to 20 criminals sought by the U.S. and agreed to allow its navy to return to anti-narcotics work along with the army. Mexico has announced justice reforms that would aid cooperation, including making it harder for criminals to delay extraditions and improving Mexico’s ability to use judicially approved wiretaps in criminal cases.  

Barr’s visit to Mexico in January seems to have made additional progress on closer collaboration against transnational criminal organizations. He met with his counterpart and an array of senior Mexican justice, public security, diplomatic and intelligence officials. The Mexicans announced an agreement on “a common binational program to reduce trafficking in arms, drugs and financial resources” and “to treat fentanyl as a common problem.” The governments agreed to a follow up meeting in February between prosecutors.

With the added momentum from Barr’s visits, the stage is set to demonstrate concrete progress against the drug trade. The list of areas needing deeper cooperation is long. The two sides can make more headway by establishing regular senior-level dialogue to build trust, identify common goals, create shared action plans, assess progress and make adjustments to work against cross-border criminal organizations. 

Enhanced U.S.-Mexico cooperation need not restrict AMLO’s plans to pursue social, penal and other reforms to tackle broader problems of crime and violence in Mexico. Significant advances in a common effort, however, can greatly benefit both countries.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a retired career ambassador who served four years as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and now is a diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service and a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Crime in Mexico Donald Trump Drug cartel Mexican Drug War Organized crime Smuggling US-Mexico Border William Barr

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