Rising tensions over fentanyl smuggling expose rifts in US-Mexico relationship

Rafael Carranza
Arizona Republic

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The smuggling of fentanyl across the United States-Mexico border has highlighted escalating tensions between the two countries as both presidents face internal pressures that have come head to head.

Fentanyl has been the leading source of drug overdose deaths in the United States, with synthetic drugs such as fentanyl accounting for two in three overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That has made fentanyl a priority for the administration of President Joe Biden and central to a line of attack from congressional Republicans who accuse Biden of not doing enough to stop smuggling at the border and who have even called to designate cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

In Mexico, there's also growing concern about the synthetic drug, especially along the country's northern border region with the United States. But recent claims by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that Mexico does not produce fentanyl has put his government at odds with the United States and has deepened rifts between the two countries as they combat record numbers of fentanyl smuggling.

"Although the Biden administration has desperately tried to avoid a visible rupture to the relationship, including because it relies on the Mexican government to stop migrants from getting to the US border, on the counternarcotic side the relationship continues to be very low, and it hit a new level of crisis over the past two weeks," Vanda Felbab-Brown said.

Maricopa County sheriff's correctional officers found nearly 500 fentanyl pills during five separate bookings.

She's a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Brookings Institute, and an expert on transnational criminal groups and drug smuggling. Felbab-Brown said those divisions have been hard to avoid, especially after four U.S. citizens were kidnapped, two of them killed, in March after crossing into the Mexican northern state of Tamaulipas.

She traces the origins of the deepening rift to the U.S. arrest in October 2020 of General Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico's former defense minister from 2012 to 2018, on charges of collusion with organized crime. Facing pressure from the military, López Obrador successfully sought Cienfuegos' extradition back to Mexico by threatening to limit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's agents in the country. Mexican prosecutors subsequently cleared the general of wrongdoing, according to the Washington Office for Latin America.

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Relations have remained frosty. Security cooperation between the two countries has deteriorated.

López Obrador, also known by his initials AMLO, snubbed Biden by skipping the 2021 Summit of the Americans in Los Angeles, which focused on immigration.

Felbab-Brown said the breakdown in the relationship is having an impact on the ground, describing the situation as a state of noncooperation.

"It's both devastating for U.S. lives and it's devastating for Mexico, where the cartels, to whom President López Obrador has essentially given free reign, are taking over the country's institutions, economies," she said. "They are not just smuggling drugs to the United States, but taking over agriculture, legal fisheries, the timber industry. They are dictating who can run in Mexico, not simply bribing those who are elected."

As tensions persist on both sides of the border, a bipartisan group of eleven U.S. lawmakers visited Mexico City and with López Obrador for five hours on March 19, according to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., one of the seven senators and four representatives on the trip.

Sinema said U.S. lawmakers brought up concerns that transnational criminal groups are not only producing fentanyl in Mexico, but also have tight control over smuggling corridors northbound to the United States. She described the meeting as productive, adding that they secured an agreement from López Obrador to stop the movement of precursor chemicals used in labs to produce fentanyl.

"We've asked Mexico to work with us closely and with the DEA and and our foreign ministry to more carefully monitor and limit and hold China accountable for the kind of movement of those precursor chemicals out of China and into Mexico," Sinema said. "And that largely happens ... through the the maritime ports of entry in Mexico."

Fake pharmaceutical pills containing fentanyl seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Phoenix division.

The most recent tensions boiled over when López Obrador claimed during several of his morning press conferences that fentanyl is not produced in Mexico. While he said that Mexico would continue cooperating with the U.S. to stop the flow of the powerful narcotic, the president argued his country was not solely to blame for its distribution and use in the United States.

"It is not Mexico, I repeat, the country that most introduces fentanyl to the United States," López Obrador said March 16.

"I sustain that more fentanyl arrived directly to the United States and to Canada than what arrives in Mexico."

The Mexican president further made headlines by repeatedly suggesting that the responsibility for the overdose deaths in the United States was because drug users "are unsatisfied, because they are unhappy, they are alone, because they lacked love, they lacked apapacho," a colloquial term that roughly translates to hugs or pampering.

That argument echoes López Obrador's strategy for dealing with cartel violence in Mexico. His strategy dubbed "hugs, not bullets" opted for a more restrained approach to combating drug cartels, by creating incentives for youth to not become involved in the drug trade, rather than continuing a hardline, militaristic approach used by his predecessors.

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López Obrador has enlisted his entire government to back his claims that Mexico does not produce fentanyl and is not to blame for fentanyl deaths in the United States.

Roberto Velasco Álvarez, Mexico's foreign policy chief for North America, admitted that the country is used by smuggling groups to recondition and transport fentanyl and its precursor drugs originating from Asia.

"But up to this moment, there is no record of the production or synthesis of fentanyl in Mexico," he said, arguing that labs dismantled in the country were merely used to "fill and finish" the opioid into pills.

In an unprecedented move, the Mexican government is employing its network of 51 consulates in the United States, including five in Arizona, to launch a diplomatic effort north of the border to challenge the assertion from some U.S. lawmakers that Mexico is largely responsible for the smuggling of fentanyl across the border into the United States.

The Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Mexico's ambassador to the United States summoned the chiefs from the 51 consular missions to Washington earlier this month. Although the consulates' focus mainly has centered on providing services for millions of Mexican citizens living in the U.S., Ebrard tasked them with speaking out about fentanyl smuggling.

"We've been instructed to speak objectively. This is a problem with many factors and we believe that the United States also has a lot of responsibility," Jorge Mendoza Yescas, Mexico's Consul in Phoenix, told The Arizona Republic.

"How do we stop fentanyl in Mexico from getting to consumers here? But also, how will the United States curb addictions and prevent more U.S. citizens and other nationalities living here from falling into the claws of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs," Mendoza Yescas added. "We have to work jointly and each county has to assume responsibility for their part."

López Obrador's claims denying the production of fentanyl in Mexico are disputed by the U.S. government.

Under House Bill 2036, people caught possessing or selling any amount of heroin, fentanyl or fentanyl-like drugs would not qualify for a "suspension of sentence, probation, pardon or release from confinement on any basis."

Anne Milgram, the DEA administrator, testified in February on Capitol Hill that the Sinaloa and the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels in Mexico are not just responsible for the majority of fentanyl smuggled into the United States, but they dominate the global supply chain.

"It is why DEA has made defeating those two cartels our top operational priority," Milgram said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and border agents have seized record numbers of fentanyl along the southern U.S. border, according to the agency's statistics. Since the start of the fiscal year, they have seized more than 11,000 pounds of the drug and are on track to surpass the 14,100 pounds seized last year.

More than half of seizures this year have happened along Arizona's border crossings with Mexico. That is why on March 22, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on a visit to the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales the rollout of Operation Blue Lotus, a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement to tackle fentanyl smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the first week of the operation, Mayorkas said, U.S. border officials netted 900 pounds of fentanyl.

Republican lawmakers, led by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Kennedy, R-La., have called the Biden administration's response inadequate. The two senators have urged Biden to label the drug cartels as a foreign terrorist organizations, and even to use the U.S. military to strike labs and other cartel operations in Mexico.

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"I want to put the Mexican government on notice ... when it comes to the poisoning of America we're going to take different action because what we're doing is not working," Graham said March 22 from Capitol Hill. "And this is not a confrontational statement, this is a statement of fact."

The calls for U.S. military involvement against the cartels were met with resistance by the Mexican government. The country has long been wary of U.S. intervention given past conflicts that resulted in Mexico losing over half of its territory to its northern neighbor.

López Obrador and his government have criticized the senators' statements, arguing they were meant to score political points ahead of U.S. elections in 2024. He warned that if Republicans win, they would be forced to not just stand behind those statements but take action that could further erode the relationship between the two countries.

"It is irresponsible to say 'if you don't get in line, if you don't submit to the U.S. government agencies, we will present a measure so that the U.S. military intervenes and takes on criminal groups in Mexico,'" López Obrador said. "That is a disrespect to our sovereignty, plus it's also hypocritical, it's politicking, it is to win votes, very lowbrow and cheap."

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., questioned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the "difficult" relationship with López Obrador during a March 23 hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Stanton asked about possible diplomatic solutions with Mexico, which he said are necessary to effectively tackle the fight against fentanyl.

"We've seen in Mexico over the past year a record number of seizures when it comes to fentanyl; we've seen a record number of disruptions where fentanyl is produced," Blinken responded.

He added that the two countries have developed joint strategies to increase cooperation against fentanyl smuggling.

Blinken also mentioned "the importance of the technology that is being deployed to the ports of entry at the border were 95% of the fentanyl is coming in to the United States through those legal ports of entry," and how to get that technology to border crossings as quickly as possible.

Sinema had similar takeaways from her visit to Mexico City with 10 other U.S. lawmakers. She told The Arizona Republic that even though she was glad to see more cooperation underway, Congress plays an important role in coming up with solutions to weaken drug cartels, such as reforming the U.S. asylum system.

"Existing loopholes in our asylum system have allowed transnational criminal organizations like Sinaloa, for example, to control who comes into the United States of America and who doesn't," Sinema said. "Right now, they get to control the timing, the flow and the number of people and who those people are. And we have to change the system in order to stop the cartels from being in control."

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