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).
TCOs cross-border illicit networks operate widely in both countries, undermining the sovereignty of both. Effectively countering TCOs continues to be difficult. Recall that the United States declared the war on drugs in the early 1970s. U.S.-Mexico cooperation has made progress against cross-border crime in the past and can do so again, if the two sides can construct a shared vision, agree on action plans and build trust through effective day-to-day cooperation.
Recent visits to Mexico by U.S. Attorney General William Barr signal that the two governments are moving toward closer collaboration, after a very bumpy year of cooperation against cross-border crime, highlighted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO’s).
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, inherited a deteriorating public security situation in December 2018 when he took office. During 2019, however, Mexico set a new record for homicides with some 34,500 killed (even though the rate of increase slowed). A December Mexican government survey found 72.9 percent of respondents said the city where they live is unsafe, reflecting the broad security problem. And, the costs of continuing violence and crime weight heavily on the economy, on attracting investment and on tourism.
Drugs smuggled to the United States through Mexico fuel many thousands of deaths from overdoses, particularly from dangerously 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 last year.
Mexico and the United States have both contributed to delaying anti-drug cooperation.
Upon taking office, AMLO committed to demonstrating a new approach to fighting crime – saying he would go after the root causes of criminality, using social programs and reforms. “Hugs not bullets” is his slogan. He sought to differentiate himself from his predecessors, including their close cooperation with the United States. AMLO was critical of the U.S.-Mexico “Merida” program, which served as the umbrella for collaboration and U.S. assistance. He opted to create a new Mexican National Guard as a key mechanism to help restore security in Mexico.
In the first half of 2019, while U.S officials worked quietly to encourage a review of Merida cooperation, the new Mexican government was not supportive. U.S.-Mexico collaboration continued on a low-key basis. Among U.S. law enforcement and justice agencies, however, frustration grew as Mexican criminal organizations smuggled large quantities of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines to the United States (and U.S. drug sales continued to provide billions of dollars to the criminal groups, which they use to buy arms and sow mayhem in Mexico).
From a U.S. perspective, the Trump administration priorities were on reducing migration flows — not anti-drug work. 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 United States. This generated urgent Mexico-U.S. negotiations and agreement in June 2019 that Mexico would significantly step up enforcement at its southern and northern borders. Mexico also agreed to allow migrants to wait in Mexico for the United States to rule on their requests for asylum.
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 U.S. asylum decisions, and Mexico had turned around over 150,000 migrants heading north. Mexico did this by deploying some 25,000 of its new National Guard to intercept migrants. The cost was that the National Guard was diverted from its public security mission. The Unites States continues to press Mexico to do more to stem the flow of migrants, including those from Mexico.
Crime related to cross-border smuggling continued to grow, however. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported not only an overall 28 percent increase in seizures of illicit drugs, but an 80 percent increase in deadly fentanyl seizures, while violent crime in Mexico headed higher.
On Aug. 8, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum on Major Drug Transit and Producing Countries, warning that, without improved cooperation, the United States would consider classifying Mexico as not upholding its international drug control commitments and thus be subject to sanctions. This finding represented a coordinated multi-agency view, which U.S. officials said still held firm at the end of 2019.
This U.S. signal helped spark the creation on Aug. 27 of a Mexico-U.S. High-Level Security Group (GANSEG, in Spanish) to help address specific problem areas. Bilateral work intensified in eight newly established working groups, seeking to improve cooperation in drug smuggling, border security, financial crime, arms trafficking and judicial cooperation, among other areas. In October, an interagency U.S. delegation visited to seek more progress toward developing shared goals and targets and to monitor progress. At Mexico’s request, 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 U.S. priorities, including hindering drug smuggling operations and bringing criminals to justice.
Brazen criminal acts then pushed the two governments toward better collaboration, two of which stand out. In October, a badly botched Mexican government attempt to capture one of El Chapo’s sons, wanted for drug trafficking to the United States, highlighted the power of criminal groups and weaknesses in Mexico’s security strategy. The violent incident in Culiacán, Sinaloa, sparked sharp criticism in both countries. 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 the November killings, President Trump threatened to designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). That threat brought problems into even sharper focus for authorities in both countries. An FTO 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, as an FTO designation would have serious costs for Mexico, including possible unilateral U.S. operations.
In early December, Trump pulled back from the FTO threat, citing a promise to improve anti-crime cooperation from AMLO. He dispatched U.S. Attorney General William Barr to Mexico. Following Barr’s visit, Mexico extradited 10 to 20 criminals sought by the United States. Mexico agreed to allow its highly respected Navy to return to anti-narcotics work, along with the army, a move welcomed by U.S. officials. Mexico’s Fiscal General (Attorney General Equivalent) also 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. The judicial wiretap change is vital for strengthening Mexico’s ability to investigate and convict TCO members and other criminals.
Attorney General Barr’s Jan. 15 to 17 visit to Mexico seems to have made additional progress on collaboration against transnational criminal organizations. Barr met not only with his counterpart, but with 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.” Barr had flagged the dangers of fentanyl smuggled from and produced in Mexico in a Jan. 10 op-ed urging the U.S. Congress to pass legislation tightening controls on the drug and its analogues. The governments also agreed to a followup 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 and related cross-border crime. The list of areas needing deeper cooperation is long. It stretches from the need to create joint task forces to tackle particular drugs and TCOs, for example, to better disrupting and seizing illicit finances, and the need to effectively tackle perennial problems of corruption, including better vetting of officials that inhibit effective investigations and winning convictions. The pending U.S. charges against former Mexican Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna highlight the dangers of official corruption.
Headway is possible, however, if the two sides can establish regular senior-level dialogue to build trust, identify common goals, create shared action plans, assess progress in the day-to-day cooperation and make needed adjustments to the work against cross-border criminal organizations based on results achieved. This bilateral dialogue should also include discussion of U.S. efforts to address drug demand in the United States and Mexico’s efforts to pursue social and other reforms at home.
It is important to underscore that 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 within Mexico. Nor should bilateral cooperation be limited by past practices. Innovation is needed to deal with evolving TCO business practices. Advances in a common effort, however, can greatly benefit both countries and should continue to be pursued as a priority.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and career ambassador (ret.) from the U.S. Diplomatic Service, where he served as U.S. ambassador to both Mexico and Argentina, as well as assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs. He is also the co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute Advisory Board and a Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service.