Countering Fentanyl Smuggling through Binational Efforts


Photo: U.S. Council on Foreign Relations

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

U.S.-Mexico relations face a series of serious challenges at present, but one stands out because of the breadth of damage it is causing in both countries: the cross-border trafficking of fentanyl and related synthetic opioids.

U.S. and Mexican security officials will meet this week to seek common ground, following weeks of debate in the United States and between both countries about how to improve cooperation. Progress is urgently needed.

The bilateral agenda is full. Migration management and related violence is severely testing both Mexico and the United States.

The recent kidnapping and killing of U.S. citizens just across the U.S. border underscored the serious threat of criminal violence in certain Mexican states. Criminal violence has also led Mexico to send additional forces to tourist locations frequented by U.S. and other foreign tourists this month.

The United States and Mexico are also wrestling with important commercial disputes over Mexico’s agriculture and energy policies, under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which touch billions of dollars in trade and investment.

The most dangerous threats and the most elevated tensions, however, surround cross-border drug trafficking, especially the smuggling of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Most of this deadly cargo is believed by U.S. law-enforcement officials and security experts to arrive from Mexico, with Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion criminal groups as the primary culprits.

That trafficking is fueling sharply rising U.S. overdose deaths, or “poisoning” as some are calling them, as well as violence and corruption around production and supply routes in Mexico.

These concerning trends have led some members of the U.S. Congress and other commentators to call for direct U.S. action against drug-smuggling groups, which Mexican President Andés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) has rebuffed.

AMLO, however, has been listening. He recently wrote a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping requesting help to stop illegal shipments of fentanyl to Mexico. A Chinese spokesperson replied by denying involvement in illegal fentanyl shipments. Neither AMLO nor the Chinese mentioned precursor chemicals for fentanyl, which U.S. authorities believe are also sent to Mexico from China and used to make fentanyl for distribution to the United States.

The United States and Mexico have, however, been discussing improved cooperation. It is not yet clear what might emerge, but it is encouraging that cabinet-level officials will engage this week in Washington. Many believe serious action against fentanyl is well overdue.

The United States should press urgently for an agreement that produces more effective and better-coordinated security collaboration than has taken place in recent years. Any new accord should deliver measurable progress on reducing fentanyl flows to the United States, among other agreed indicators designed to weaken criminal networks in both countries. An agreement should build in regular reviews of results achieved as well as more transparency about cooperation.

An improved agreement should also address serious problems of importance to Mexico, including arms being smuggled to Mexico from the United States and the flows of proceeds from U.S. drug sales back to Mexican crime groups, often through China.

A U.S.-Mexico agreement should be in the context of promoting international cooperation to reduce the illicit flows of chemical precursors used to produce synthetic opioids, especially from China. Building an international coalition to track trade in those precursors, and to punish those who divert them for criminal use, should be a priority.

Synthetic opioids killed over 70,000 Americans in 2021. Fentanyl seizures at the U.S. southwest border rose over 500 percent during FY 2019 to FY 2022. FY 2023 fentanyl seizures are on track to set a record, despite a 2022 U.S.-Mexican security action plan.

Mexico’s trafficking groups contribute mightily to violent homicides in Mexico, which have totaled over 30,000 a year since 2019. Crime also generates significant other costs. For example, in 2021, the Mexico Peace Index estimated the economic costs of violence to be over $243 billion.

U.S. officials and analysts report that collaboration against cross-border crime has been deteriorating over the last five years, resulting in a much more arm’s-length bilateral cooperation than existed a decade earlier.

That lack of effective collaboration, plus the rising overdose crisis, has prompted calls from some in the U.S. Congress and former U.S. officials to designate Mexican trafficking groups as foreign terrorist organizations, which proponents say would strengthen the United States’ ability to weaken Mexico’s cartels.

In response, these calls have generated defensive and misleading retorts from Mexico’s president, including claims that fentanyl is not produced in Mexico, despite strong statements by U.S. officials to the contrary.

Increased attention on fentanyl trafficking to the United States by Mexican criminal groups is very welcome. Congressional hearings and public calls for action are highlighting the serious costs. Many experts have advocated repeatedly for more effective cooperation in recent years.

However, as U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said, when asked about the situation in a recent interview, “I wouldn’t recommend anything be done without Mexico’s support.” Revised bilateral security cooperation is a much better way forward, if possible. Unilateral U.S. action can be held in reserve.

Washington and Mexico City should urgently prioritize reaching an agreement on steps to significantly improve the mechanisms and results of bilateral collaboration. A new agreement would need to move beyond current Mexican reluctance to work closely with the United States. Any new agreement should forthrightly address issues that have been holding back U.S.-Mexico anti-crime cooperation, including persistent mistrust, the inability to tackle corruption, limits placed on law enforcement and justice collaboration inside Mexico, and the need for better communication, coordination and performance by institutions on both sides of the border.

Officials and experts have highlighted shortcomings and offered solid recommendations to produce more effective U.S.-Mexico public-security work, but they have not been implemented.

Even while talking with Mexico, the United States can more aggressively use sanctions against trafficking groups and their facilitators. The United States, for example, can build an expanded interagency taskforce to help the U.S. Treasury’s OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) to develop more rapidly targeted sanctions on those facilitating drug trafficking.

Success will require top-level political buy-in and support from both the United States and Mexico. A joint effort between these two closely interlocked neighbors is much more likely to produce good results over time than a unilateral approach. However, the United States will retain unilateral options if needed.

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.

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