Bilateral Effort for a Common Good

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By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

The United States and Mexico took important steps toward better cooperation against cross-border crime and criminal networks on Oct. 8. Meeting in Mexico City, cabinet members from both countries approved a new framework to replace the Merida Initiative, which had served as the umbrella for bilateral public security cooperation since 2008. Now, teams from both countries aim to hammer out an agreed action agenda by year’s end and then forge a three-year plan of action by early in 2022.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo led the U.S. team meeting with their Mexican counterparts, as well as with Mexico’s president, Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO). The Mexican and U.S. cabinet ministers approved a broad agenda tied to tackling the criminal violence and illicit commerce that is bringing so much harm to citizens of both countries. They agreed that ministers would meet annually to advance this work and review progress made by sub-cabinet officials working together regularly.

The new U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities covers cooperation on public health tied to drug abuse, supporting safer communities and working to reduce homicides. It also includes joint efforts to promote border security, reduce arms trafficking, disrupt criminal groups’ supply chains and reduce human smuggling and trafficking. The new framework additionally commits the United States and Mexico to collaborating in disrupting illicit financiers, strengthening investigation and prosecution capacities, and increasing cooperation on extraditions. It will allow for collaboration at sub-federal and federal levels, official say.

This important set of agreements follows months of quiet talks to rebuild trust following the serious weakening of bilateral cooperation in recent years. It also reflects an understanding that the current cross-border illicit 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, violence and a trail of corruption.

There remain serious challenges to improving day-to-day cooperation in ways that truly increase pressure on the transnational criminal groups, but the effort to do so is very welcome given the high stakes for both countries. The Joe Biden administration has been working for months with Mexican counterparts to reopen paths for collaboration.

Both sides used the June visit of U.S. 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, Mexican Foreign Relations (SRE) Secretary Marcelo Ebrard publicly signaled the end of the U.S.-Mexico Merida program on security cooperation, but simultaneously flagged a willingness to work cooperatively to reduce illicit arms flows to criminal groups in Mexico, reduce homicides and improve security at Mexico’s ports in order to curb imports of precursor chemicals into Mexico that are used to produce deadly synthetic drugs such as fentanyl. U.S. national Security Adviser Jake Sullivan then led a team to Mexico in August to pursue agreement for a renewed dialogue, helping to secure the path to the Oct. 8 ministerial meeting.

The need is urgent. On Sept. 30, for example, 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, as well as human smuggling and trafficking. 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. Mexico also ranks 104 out of 138 countries in a just-released global Rule of Law Index.

These tragic findings underscore the strategic interests of Mexico and the United States in forging improved cooperation on public security and safety. Both countries need serious, effective collaboration between their law enforcement and justice agencies that reduces illicit trade and brings 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 Donald Trump threatened to designate Mexican drug groups as terrorists after the murder of U.S. citizen women and children in northern Mexico. Even though the threats initially spurred some additional collaboration, bilateral cooperation took a serious downturn in late 2020 when the United States arrested Salvador Cienfuegos, a senior retired Mexican military officer accused of having ties to drug smugglers. Mexico demanded his return and 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, while criticizing the Merida Initiative, which has provided the umbrella for joint work on public security and safety 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 the last three years, despite Mexican government reforms and policy changes. The number of drug-overdose deaths in the United States has soared, and seizures of illegal drugs at the U.S.-Mexico border have continued to rise.

Coming out of the Oct. 8 agreement, the two sides need sustained hard work among officials to agree on and build up much stronger day-to-day law enforcement and justice cooperation between key U.S. and Mexican agencies, including on extraditions, information sharing, investigations and money laundering. This means tackling a series of difficult issues, including ways to preserve the confidentiality needed for successful investigations and prosecutions of those involved with the powerful and cash-rich criminal enterprises.

Over time, that cooperation needs to prove its value by helping to reduce the amounts of fentanyl, heroin and other lethal drugs moving into the United States. and the firearms and illicit money flowing from the United States into Mexico, and it should be reflected in increased criminal convictions in both countries. In the process, it should also strengthen capabilities of justice and law enforcement agencies.

The October High-Level Security Dialogue follows the launch of a new U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue, as well as closer cooperation on migration, including the recent surge of Haitian migrants, and on covid-19 vaccinations. Both governments have been working hard to establish regular, ongoing processes to manage these very challenging issues.

The tough law enforcement and justice work needed to weaken the criminal groups will take time and 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 an agreed policy framework that fosters 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, including ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015.

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