Can the US and AMLO stop the cartel’s deadly flow of fentanyl?
- Biden heads to Mexico City this week to meet with the Mexican president, fentanyl on the agenda
- The timing of the alleged cartel leader’s arrest shows Mexico can do more when it wants, analysts say.
- Analysts say Biden needs to push much more aggressively for Mexico to crack down on drugs and corruption.
Four days before President Joe Biden is scheduled to fly south to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, authorities in the northwestern state of Sinaloa arrested the son of an infamous drug cartel leader. known as “El Chapo,” who is wanted by US authorities for contributing to the fentanyl crisis that killed an estimated 70,000 Americans last year.
At least 29 people, including 10 Mexican soldierswere killed in shootouts with members of the Sinaloa Cartel during the operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán on Thursday and take him to Mexico City on a military plane.
In public, Mexican officials denied that the raid it was timed to show Washington that its southern neighbor is an active partner in the politically tense bilateral effort to stem the cross-border flow of the deadly synthetic opioid.
More:The arrest of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, plunged Mexico into chaos ahead of Biden’s visit
But some current and former U.S. counternarcotics officials are suspicious, saying another “most wanted” drug cartel leader, Rafael Caro Quintero, was arrested in Sinaloa just days after Biden and López Obrador met in Washington last July to discuss a variety of topics, including a war on drugs that has tested the two countries’ security alliance for the past half century.
“It certainly seems political. There’s a lot of speculation now that it’s all about timing,” former Drug Enforcement Administration official Derek Maltz told USA TODAY. “Biden announces that he will go down to Mexico, so now they are going to go out and grab Ovidio”, who has been taking on American criminals drug charges since his 2018 indictment In New York.
Based on their discussions with current DEA leadership, some top US drug enforcement officials believe Mexico has also been inflating the amount of fentanyl and other drugs it has seized at the cartel’s “superlabs” where large amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine just south of the border. to facilitate smuggling into the United Statesaccording to Maltz, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Special Operations Division for nearly 10 years before his retirement in 2014.
“I’m really not sure,” added Maltz, who helped lead the international effort to capture Ovidio’s father, Joaquín Guzmán Loera. “But in my opinion, unless it’s sustained attacks on cartel leaders and production labs, it’s not going to make a difference. Meanwhile, we have 9,000 Americans dying every month.”
More:Biden says Mexico will step up help with border security, plans trip to El Paso border
‘No secret’ what both parties want
It is no secret what Biden will ask of López Obrador, and vice versa, when they meet in Mexico City next week on the sidelines of the North American Leaders Summit.
López Obrador wants from Biden the same thing that Mexican leaders have been demanding for the past half century: reduce the voracious American demand for Mexican-made drugs that has created the multibillion-dollar black market economy in the first place. He wants Washington to stop the flow of US-made weapons smuggled into Mexico, which has allowed the Sinaloa, Jalisco Nueva Generación and other cartels to amass more firepower than most government armies.
Y Biden wants Mexico to stop the flood of deadly narcotics entering the United States, especially fentanyl, which killed more Americans last year than COVID-19, car accidents, cancer and suicide. More quietly, he will also push Mexico to do much more to attack the rampant government corruption and collusion that has allowed cartels to flourish for decades.
Working hard for a deal
Aides to both presidents have been working behind the scenes to come up with some sort of drug deal, or at least signs of progress, that can be announced when the two meet.
On Friday, White House spokesman John Kirby said Mexico has already taken “significant steps” to crack down on fentanyl traffickers, citing Guzman’s arrest. “That is not an insignificant achievement by the Mexican authorities, and we are certainly grateful for that,” Kirby told reporters. “So we’re going to continue to work with them in unison to see what we can do together to try to limit that flow.”
Security analysts, however, told USA TODAY that the outcome is likely to be the same as it has been after similar summits attended by nearly every US president since Richard Nixon established the ” War on Drugs” in the US just over 50 years ago. There will be promises made by both parties to do more, followed by the inevitable backsliding when it comes to turning those promises into reality.
That’s especially the case because counternarcotics relations between Washington and Mexico City have been at an unusually low ebb since AMLO, as he’s popularly known, assumed the presidency in December 2018. Almost immediately, he scrapped the playbook. bilateral weapons that the two countries had been using to go after the cartels.
Even as Mexico’s murder rate skyrocketed, López Obrador said he had no intention of going after the cartels, instead focusing on a more comprehensive “hugs, not bullets” approach that prioritized social welfare over law enforcement. law.
More:Biden plans to visit the US-Mexico border for the first time in his presidency
“These issues are very difficult. They are very hard. But look, you have to restart some of these talks and have, again, a more constructive and honest dialogue between the two countries to engender a framework and start a process that leads to more action,” said David Luna, a former senior government official. Department of State that led bilateral efforts to combat the growing threat of transnational drug cartels.
“You can’t just focus on the cartels and crime,” Luna added. “To achieve greater progress, with better results, you must fight corruption and organized crime that are helping to fuel insecurity and cartel violence in Mexico.”
Fighting corruption alongside crime
The security relationship between the United States and Mexico became even more tense after United States anti-drug agents arrested former Mexican defense minister, retired General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, on drug-related corruption charges as he and his family arrived to Los Angeles International Airport on October 1. 15, 2020. That almost dismantled bilateral police operations between the two countries, especially on drug traffickers.
To move forward, Biden himself “needs to take a more direct role” in pushing Mexico to much more aggressively confront endemic corruption in the country,” said Luna, founder and executive director of the International Coalition Against Illicit Economies. “President Biden must hold President Obrador more accountable for disrupting the illegal production of fentanyl in Mexico and for disrupting the various flows of illicit trafficking.”
Four demands Washington must make
Maltz, the DEA’s former head of Special Operations, outlined four demands Biden should make, which he says US counternarcotics officials have been pushing for years.
The United States indicted a “massive number” of high-level cartel leaders still operating in Mexico, including trafficking fentanyl, but whom Mexico has not captured or, more importantly, extradited to the United States for trial, Maltz told USA TODAY. .
He also said that Washington has shared intelligence with Mexico on numerous occasions about “super labs” that are producing record amounts of fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs just south of the US border that are then smuggled into the States. Joined. “We have made historic seizures at the border and in this country, but they have to go after border labs with their elite units like the Mexican Navy,” Maltz said.
He said the Cienfuegos arrest “took us back many, many years in Mexico and they are not being cooperative and they are not working on joint operational successes. And laboratory seizures are very low” in Mexico, Maltz said.
And Mexico needs to stop the flow of precursor chemicals from China and India that are used to make fentanyl and methamphetamine, and take much more aggressive action against the Chinese money launderers now working in tandem with the cartels.
“There really is a lot of frustration on our side of the border,” Maltz said. “We’re not getting enough of them.”
A ‘very prickly nationalist’
Whether López Obrador will respond is anyone’s guess. He made headlines for not attending the Summit of the Americas last July, in what was seen as a blow to the US-Mexico relationship. He made his second visit to the White House in eight months shortly thereafter, but sarcastically told Biden that he would meet “despite our differences and also despite our grievances that are not easy to forget with time or with good wishes.”
“López Obrador is a very prickly nationalist,” said the former Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhán Casamitjana. He noted that the Mexican president sent a letter to Biden ahead of the summit in which he continued to insist that one of the key issues he will press is to make sure that the US does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries in the Americas, including yours.
“This is part of his world view of the 1960s and 1970s and the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico,” Sarukhán said. “So, since this is also a Mexican government, that has really reduced the level of collaboration in terms of legal enforcement and counternarcotics policy.”
Contributions: Rebecca Morin, Francesca Chambers