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Get Tougher on Fentanyl and Trying to Bolster US-Mexico Anti-Crime Collaboration

Earl Anthony Wayne

US-Mexico relations face serious challenges at present which spanning issues from trade and migration to border violence and drug trafficking.  But the most dangerous threats surround the trafficking of synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, to the US and the violence and corruption that this trafficking fuels around production and supply routes in Mexico. 

The US and Mexico have been discussing improved cooperation against fentanyl in recent days, but it is not yet clear what may emerge.  The US should press urgently for agreement that produces more effective and better coordinated security collaboration that delivers measurable progress on reducing fentanyl flows to the US. 

An improved agreement should also address other serious problems related to cross border drug trade, including arms being smuggled to Mexico from the US for use by trafficking and other criminal groups and the flows of proceeds from US drug sales back to the Mexican crime groups, often through China

A US-Mexico agreement also needs to promote wider and urgent international efforts to reduce fentanyl precursor flows to Mexico, and the North American continent, especially from China.

Synthetic opioids killed over 70,000 Americans in 2021. Fentanyl seizures at the US Southwest border rose over 500% between FY 2019-22.  2023 fentanyl seizures are on track to set a record, despite a 2022 US-Mexican security action plan.  Mexico’s criminal trafficking groups also fuel violent homicides in Mexico which have totaled over 30,000 a year since 2019.  The criminal groups generate significant economic and human costs for Mexico

U.S. officials and analysts report a deteriorating situation with arm’s length bilateral cooperation between the US and Mexico.  The lack of effective collaboration against transborder crime is feeding the calls from some in the US congress and former senior US officials for designating Mexican trafficking groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and in turn, these calls are generating defensive and misleading retorts by Mexico’s President

Increased attention is very welcome given the tremendous damage being caused by the fentanyl trafficking, undertaken largely by Mexico’s Jalisco Nueva Generación and Sinaloa crime groups.  Congressional hearings and public calls for action are highlighting the costs that have led many experts to advocate for more effectivecooperation in recent years. 

Unilateral US action designating the Mexican groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations should be held in reserve, however.   Washington and Mexico City should rather prioritize an urgent initiative to significantly improve the mechanisms and results of bilateral collaboration, working to overcome past reluctance of Mexico’s president.  The initiative and any new agreement should address forthrightly issues that have been holding back US-Mexico anti-crime cooperation, including persistent mistrust, inability to tackle corruption,  limits placed law enforcement and justice collaboration in Mexico, and the need for better coordination and performance by institutions from both sides of the border. 

Officials and experts have recently highlighted short comings to be addressed, but for years, many have offered recommendations to produce more effective US-Mexico public security work. 

The talks to forge better US-Mexico mechanisms need not delay US efforts to continue more aggressive use of sanctions against trafficking groups and those who facilitate them.  Nor should the US delay efforts to go after the international supply of precursors and build pressure for China to cooperate.

US-Mexico talks on specific new steps are reportedly underway.  Success will require top level political buy-in and support from both countries.  This is worth trying.  A joint effort between these two closely inter-locked neighbors is much more likely to produce good results over time than a unilateral approach.  But US will retain unilateral options if needed. 

About the Author

Earl Anthony Wayne

Earl Anthony Wayne

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Career Ambassador to Afghanistan, Argentina, and Mexico; Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, School of International Service, American University
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more