Senior U.S. officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken were in Mexico on Wednesday for talks with Mexican officials on the drug trade and a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.
Blinken will be joined by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The U.S. delegation is set to meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Rosa Icela Rodriguez, secretary for Security and Citizen Protection.
The meeting comes at a time of rising tension between the two nations. The United States is in the middle of an epidemic of opioid addiction that claims more than 100,000 lives each year. Most of the deaths are attributable to fentanyl, a potent narcotic trafficked across the border by Mexico-based drug cartels.
At the same time, the U.S. southern border faces a daily deluge of migrants, often numbering in the thousands, who use Mexico as a jumping-off point for efforts to enter the U.S., either illegally or to apply for asylum as refugees.
The dual problem has led to calls from some U.S. political leaders for aggressive action, with a number of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination advocating military intervention.
In an indication of the global nature of the fentanyl problem, Garland on Tuesday held a press conference at the Justice Department, announcing that charges had been filed against eight Chinese companies and 12 individuals for their roles in the sale of fentanyl precursors — the chemical compounds from which the drug is synthesized — to buyers in Mexico.
It was the second time since June that the U.S. has filed charges against Chinese firms supplying fentanyl precursors to criminal organizations in Mexico.
“We know who is responsible for poisoning the American people with fentanyl,” Garland said. “And we know that this global fentanyl supply chain, which ends with the deaths of Americans, often starts with chemical companies in China.”
Through August of this year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has seized more than 25,500 pounds of fentanyl entering the U.S., nearly double the amount seized in the same period last year. The amount of fentanyl seized in the U.S. is up 800% since 2019, according to the Homeland Security Department, with most of it coming from Mexico.
Unlike other drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, whose raw materials need to be cultivated on hectares of farmland, fentanyl laboratories are small and easy to conceal. And because the drug is so potent — 50 times more powerful than heroin — it also is easier to transport.
Additionally, the U.S. and Mexico are looking for ways to cooperate on the issue of human migration. In recent years, the flow of economic migrants and asylum-seekers through Mexico to the U.S. border has turned into a flood.
After plummeting to fewer than 500,000 during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, attempts to cross the southern border, whether legally or illegally, have spiked in recent years. In 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials encountered 1.7 million people trying to cross the southern land border. That figure increased to 2.4 million in 2022, and the figures for 2023 are on track to be higher still.
Among other actions, the U.S. officials are expected to ask their Mexican counterparts to deploy more law enforcement personnel to interdict the shipments of fentanyl precursors and close down the labs where the drug is produced.
The reception is likely to be cool. The Mexican government, including Lopez Obrador, have been vocal in their criticism of U.S. politicians campaigning on issues related to drugs and immigration, accusing them of scapegoating their country for the United States’ own problem.
Lopez Obrador has referred to the opioid epidemic in the U.S. as the result of “social decay.”
In an appearance at the University of Texas before traveling to Mexico on Wednesday, Blinken was careful not to place all the blame on Mexico and to emphasize the U.S. wants to retain good relations with its southern neighbor.
“Mexico is … our largest trading partner in the world,” he said. “We want to preserve that. We want to preserve the connections, the bonds that tie us together.”
He noted, “And we also have our share of responsibility. One of the things that drives the drug trade that comes here and hits us … and that facilitates it, is the influx of guns coming from the United States to Mexico. We have a responsibility to help them do something about that.”
Major progress unlikely
Despite the presence of three senior Biden administration officials in Mexico, expectations for the two days of meetings are not particularly high, experts say.
Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA that similar meetings in 2021 and 2022 produced little significant policy change.
“The Biden administration tried to strike a pretty positive tone about cooperation, overlooking the fact that really, it’s at … a historic low point,” he said.
“If we see that continuity from how this played out in the last meeting last year, what I think you’ll see coming out of this is just doubling down on saying, ‘Look, we’re working together to disrupt chemical supplies, targeting fentanyl labs, prosecuting criminal figures involved in fentanyl production, whether or not that’s really happening to the extent we’d like,'” Freeman said.
Military solution suggested
In recent public appearances, several prominent Republicans have suggested that when it comes to the drug trade, the U.S. military should be deployed into Mexico to battle the drug cartels.
In the Republican presidential primary, most of the candidates have expressed support for some version of a plan under which U.S. Special Operations forces would be sent into Mexico to fight the cartels.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has on multiple occasions insisted that if he were elected president, cartel members trying to bring drugs over the border would be left “stone cold dead.”
The calls for a military solution echo reports that while serving in the White House, former President Donald Trump explored the possibility of using missile strikes on Mexican territory to take out drug manufacturing facilities.
Freeman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA that unilateral military action is “a terrible idea” that would “break down diplomatic relations with our top trade partner” and would create an opening for China, which is trying to increase its influence in the region.
“There would be no quicker way to increase China’s appeal and maybe deepen ties between China and countries in the region than an invasion of Mexico,” he said.