- Biden heads to Mexico City this week to meet Mexican president, fentanyl on agenda
- The timing of the alleged cartel leader’s arrest shows that Mexico can do more when it wants, analysts say.
- Analysts say Biden needs to lobby much more aggressively for Mexico to act on drugs and corruption.
Four days before President Joe Biden was to fly south to meet Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, authorities in the country’s northwest state of Sinaloa arrested the son of a famous Drug cartel leader known as ‘El Chapo’, wanted by US authorities for aiding the fentanyl crisis that killed up to 70,000 Americans last year.
At least 29 people, including 10 Mexican soldiers, were killed in shootouts with members of the Sinaloa Cartel during the operation to nab Ovidio Guzman on Thursday and transport him to Mexico City on a military plane.
Publicly, Mexican officials have denied that the raid was timed to show Washington that its southern neighbor is an active partner in the politically charged bilateral effort to stem the cross-border flow of the deadly synthetic opioid.
Following:Arrest of El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzman throws Mexico into chaos ahead of Biden visit
But some current and former U.S. narcotics officials are suspicious, noting that another “most wanted” drug cartel leader, Rafael Caro Quintero, was arrested in Sinaloa just days after Biden and Lopez Obrador met in Washington last July to discuss a range of issues, including a war on drugs that has tested the two countries’ security alliance over the past half-century.
“It certainly sounds like politics. There’s a lot of speculation now that it’s all about timing,” former Drug Enforcement Administration official Derek Maltz told USA TODAY. “Biden is announcing he’s going to Mexico, so now they’re going to go out and catch Ovidio,” who has faced drug trafficking charges in the United States since his 2018 indictment in New York.
Based on his conversations with current DEA officials, some top US counternarcotics officials believe Mexico also inflated the amount of fentanyl and other drugs it seized from ‘super labs’. of the cartel where large quantities of fentanyl and methamphetamine are produced just south of the border for easy smuggling into the United States, according to Maltz, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s special operations division for nearly 10 years before his retirement in 2014.
“I really don’t know for 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 leadership and production labs, it won’t make a difference. Meanwhile, 9,000 Americans are dying every month.”
Following:Biden says Mexico will step up border security aid, plans trip to El Paso border
“No secrets” what both parties want
It’s no secret what Biden will ask López Obrador, and vice versa, when they meet in Mexico City next week on the sidelines of the North American Leaders’ Summit.
Lopez Obrador wants the same thing from Biden that Mexican leaders have demanded for half a century — to reduce voracious American demand for Mexican-made drugs that created the multi-billion dollar black market economy in the first place. He wants Washington to stem the flow of US-made weapons smuggled into Mexico, which has allowed Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation and other cartels to amass more firepower than most armies. governmental.
And 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 the suicide. More quietly, he will also push Mexico to do much more to tackle the rampant government corruption and collusion that for decades has allowed cartels to thrive.
Work hard for a deal
Aides to the two presidents have been working behind the scenes to hammer out some form of counter-narcotics deal, or at least signs of progress, which 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 and referenced Guzman’s arrest. “This is no insignificant achievement by the Mexican authorities, and we are certainly grateful for that,” Kirby told reporters. “So we will continue to work with them in parallel to see what we can do together to try to limit this flow.”
Security analysts, however, told USA TODAY the outcome is likely to be the same, as it follows similar summits attended by nearly every U.S. president since Richard Nixon established the “war on drugs” in the United States. United States a little over 50 years ago. There will be promises made by both sides to do more, followed by the inevitable backsliding when it comes to turning those promises into reality.
This is especially the case because counter-narcotics relations between Washington and Mexico have been at an unusually low point since AMLO, as he is popularly known, became president in December 2018. Almost immediately, he threw the bilateral playbook the two countries used to prosecute cartels.
Even as Mexico’s murder rate soared, López Obrador said he had no intention of prosecuting the cartels, instead focusing on a more holistic “hugs, not bullets” approach that prioritized the social welfare rather than law enforcement.
Following:Biden plans to visit the US-Mexico border for the first time in his presidency
“These issues are very difficult. They are very tough. But listen, you need to restart some of these conversations and have, again, a more constructive and honest dialogue between the two countries to engender a framework and start a process that leads to greater action,” said David Luna, a former senior State Department official who led bilateral efforts to combat the growing threat of transnational drug cartels.
“You can’t just focus on cartels and crime,” Luna added. “To make greater progress, with better results, you must fight the corruption and organized crime that help fuel insecurity and cartel violence in Mexico.”
Fighting corruption alongside crime
Security relations between the United States and Mexico have become even more strained after US drug enforcement agents arrested former Mexican defense minister, retired general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, accused of corruption linked to drug trafficking as he and his family arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on October 1. 15, 2020. This has all but dismantled bilateral law enforcement operations between the two countries, especially regarding drug traffickers.
Moving forward, Biden himself “needs to take a more direct role” in pushing Mexico to fight endemic corruption in the country much more aggressively,” said Luna, the Coalition’s founder and executive director. against illicit economies.” President Biden must place greater responsibility on President Obrador for disrupting the illegal production of fentanyl in Mexico and for disrupting various illicit trafficking flows.
Four demands that Washington must make
Maltz, the former DEA special operations chief, outlined four demands Biden should make — and which he says U.S. counternarcotics officials have been pushing for years.
The United States has indicted a “massive number” of senior cartel officials who still operate in Mexico, including trafficking fentanyl, but whom Mexico has not captured or, more importantly, extradited to the United States. United to stand trial there, Maltz told USA TODAY. .
He also said Washington has repeatedly shared intelligence with Mexico about “superlabs” that produce record amounts of fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs just south of the US border that are then smuggled to United States. “We’ve made historic seizures on 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 arrest of Cienfuegos “set us back many, many years in Mexico and they are not cooperative and they are not working on joint operational successes. And lab seizures are down” in Mexico, said Maltz
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 Chinese money launderers who are now working in tandem with cartels.
“There’s really a lot of frustration on our side of the border,” Maltz said. “We don’t get enough of them.”
A “very prickly nationalist”
Nobody knows if López Obrador will be responsive. He made headlines by not making it to the Summit of the Americas last July, which was seen as a blow to US-Mexico relations. He made his second visit to the White House in eight months soon after, but bitterly told Biden he was meeting ‘despite our differences and also despite our grievances which aren’t really easy to forget over time. or with good wishes. ”
“Lopez Obrador is a very prickly nationalist,” said former Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhán Casamitjana. He noted that the Mexican president sent a letter to Biden before the summit in which he continued to insist that one of the key issues he will insist on is making sure the United States does not interfere. not the internal affairs of other countries in the Americas, including his own.
“It’s part of his worldview of the 1960s and 1970s and the US-Mexico bilateral relationship,” Sarukhán said. law enforcement and counter-narcotics policy.
Contributor: Rebecca Morin, Francesca Chambers