By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
One of the most urgent challenges to U.S.-Mexico relations is reducing cross-border crime and the harm it is doing to Mexican and American communities. So states a new report released recently by former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico and Mexican ambassadors to the United States. The ambassadors all agreed that aligning policies and practices on public security should be one of the top four areas for action in the report, which sponsored by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
Tens of thousands of Americans and Mexicans are dying or suffering from overdoses of drugs smuggled from Mexico into the United States, and from the violence fueled by Mexico’s drug-trafficking criminal groups. Over the past year, government cooperation has improved with a new High-Level Security Dialogue framework and ambitious goals and objectives to guide law enforcement, justice, financial cooperation, community safety and health aspects of this lethal cross-border commerce.
However, there is an urgent need to see more rapid progress in reducing the deadly effects of these criminal activities. There needs to be measurable metrics that can demonstrate that cooperation is working in reducing illegal flows of drugs, guns and money across the border and that law enforcement and the courts are having successes against the criminal groups and in lowering the numbers of deaths.
The ambassadors emphasize the importance of having a shared, detailed analysis of the security situation that can serve as the basis for U.S.-Mexico cooperation. Too often in the past, the two sides have not worked from a common assessment.
The ambassadors highlight the vital need to rebuild trust. In recent years, numerous bilateral developments have undermined mutual confidence and cooperation. Greater sharing of intelligence is vital to be effective against criminal groups. As the ambassadors note, “without trust and means to ensure protection of information, however, there will not be and should not be increased sharing of information.” Sadly, such trust-based cooperation between U.S. and Mexican agencies has suffered greatly since 2019 and remains legally limited in Mexico. Recent reports suggest that much mistrust remains among those agencies on the front lines.
The ambassadors emphasize the great advantages of deploying rapid newer technology along the U.S.-Mexico border, where over $1 million of legitimate commerce passes each minute. At present, the border facilities and technology on both sides fall short. New U.S. border infrastructure funding could help address the problems, if there is good cooperation and planning on new investments.
Importantly, the ambassadors urge a regular set of meetings from the cabinet level down to measure and assess progress based on a common set of metrics. To advance, they stress, the results need to be evaluated at the highest level of both governments and shared in ways that encourage better public understanding of the security landscape and promote “accountability” up and down the chains of authority.
Progress to date in agreeing on new mechanisms and shared goals for U.S.-Mexico public security is heartening, but it is not yet clear that common metrics or detailed action plans and review processes are being implemented.
New reports underscore the urgency of agreeing to and implementing a transparent action plan. The U.S. Centers for Disease Controls announced, for example, that over 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, up 15 percent from 2020. Of this total, over 71,000 overdose deaths were due to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioid-related deaths jumped 23 percent in 2021.
The vast majority of illegal fentanyl enters the United States from Mexico, according to the Commission on Combatting Synthetic Opioid Trafficking. Improving practical U.S.-Mexico law enforcement and justice cooperation is clearly more vital than ever. The Joe Biden administration recognizes this in its new National Drug Control Strategy, which lays out a series of steps to deal with the overdose crises, including better harm reduction and treatment programs, but more effective coordination with Mexico remains essential for success.
In Mexico, homicide rates are down slightly from an all-time high of over 34,000 in 2019, but the outlook remains bleak, and other crimes remain at high levels. A new report by the Global Initiative Against Organized Crime, for example, ranks Mexico as the fourth-worst of 193 countries studied for overall criminality, with particularly bad scores for “mafia-style” groups and “criminal networks,” as well as for synthetic drug trade. Mexico just revised upward its list of missing persons to 100,000, growing over 25,000 in the last two years. As of December 2020, Mexico had an estimated 350,000 internally displaced persons due to conflict or violence. Mexico’s two largest cartels remain powerful and active across large swaths of the country. Not surprisingly, many Mexicans do not feel secure in their hometowns, and they see public security as a top national issue deserving attention.
While such alarming trends have been evident for years, 2018-2021 was marked by stagnant and deteriorating bilateral law enforcement and justice cooperation, as well as rising tensions and ill will on both sides.
The Biden administration set about to introduce course corrections with a wary Mexican administration led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO was skeptical of bilateral public security cooperation under the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative begun in 2008. However a rebuilding effort was sparked with an October 2021 cabinet level “High-Level Security Dialogue” and the launch of new “Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities” to replace the Merida Initiative. The two governments issued a fulsome joint statement with an impressive set of commitments for cooperation. A set of shared objectives was then issued in January 2022, but it is not clear if this will lead to a detailed agreement on how to achieve them or to measure progress.
Recent advances in U.S.-Mexico collaboration are welcome, and officials from both countries are working hard to make progress. But the months ahead need to produce concrete results in countering the illicit trafficking and the criminal organizations that fuel death and violence on both sides of the border. Both countries need better results.
(An abbreviated version of the above article first appeared in the U.S. political website “The Hill” and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.)
EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs, is board co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and a Distinguished Diplomat at American University’s School of International Service.