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Drug war cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico is at its lowest point in decades. What went wrong?

Mexican President López Obrador said fentanyl is America’s problem and falsely stated that none of the dangerous drug is produced in Mexico. 
Hundreds of pounds of fentanyl and meth seized near Ensenada in October arrive for officials from Mexicos attorney generals office to be unloaded at their headquarter in Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, October 18, 2022. No one was arrested in connection with the seizure.
An armed guard stands near hundreds of pounds of fentanyl and meth in Tijuana, Mexico, on Oct. 18. Originally seized near Ensenada, the drugs are to be unloaded for officials from Mexico's attorney general's office.Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — It was yet another fraught moment in a tumultuous relationship, and it didn’t end well.

Senior Biden administration officials were heading to Mexico City this month for pre-arranged talks about the fentanyl crisis as the news unfolded that drug cartel gunmen had kidnapped four Americans in Mexico, two of whom were shot dead.

But after Mexican officials quickly found and retrieved the surviving Americans — with U.S. help — the Biden officials were hopeful they could still emerge from the fentanyl meeting with something good to announce.

It wasn’t to be. Even before the talks began, Mexico’s president upended them. Andrés Manuel López Obrador stood before television cameras to proclaim that fentanyl is America’s problem and falsely stated that none of the dangerous drug is produced in Mexico. 

March 09, 2023, Mexico City, Mexico: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during his briefing morning conference , at the Intelligence Center of the Ministry of Public and Citizen Security, on March 9, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks at the Ministry of Public and Citizen Security in Mexico City on March 9.Carlos Santiago / Eyepix Group/Sipa via AP

Current and former U.S. officials say the bizarre episode is symptomatic of just how badly the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated in what used to be called the drug war — at the precise moment when joint action is most needed.

“There’s really been minimal to nonexistent law enforcement cooperation,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drug-trafficking expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The Mexican government has not been allowing joint raids or even observation by U.S. law enforcement. Now this blatantly false statement by [Mexico’s] president.”

Matthew Donahue, who retired last year after three decades with the Drug Enforcement Administration, agreed that cooperation was “nonexistent” and added that the biggest problem is corruption in Mexico “and how it has infiltrated many levels of their government.”

“This is the worst it has ever been in Mexico,” he said. “What is frustrating is that we know where the traffickers are,” but the U.S. government has been unable to persuade Mexico to act, “so all that operational intelligence gathering is wasted.”

Andrew Rudman, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a public policy think tank, said: “If you can’t cooperate with Mexico, you’re not going to solve this problem — there’s just no way. It really does call into question how much cooperation can really take place in the next two years if every step forward is met with a step backward.” 

The U.S. delegation to Mexico, including Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and White House homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, flew home after the talks and steadfastly refused to comment on López Obrador’s remarks. The White House statement on the trip included no mention of the Mexican president’s comments and little of substance related to targeting fentanyl trafficking in Mexico.

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said Thursday on Twitter that its government “is not only dedicating resources, dozens of Mexican security forces’ lives have been lost in the fight against fentanyl. … We are not saying we will stop Mexico’s cooperation. We are not saying we will not go forward. No, the Mexican government is saying we will strengthen our cooperation … but we will not do it under disrespect of saying that we are not doing anything.”

In a statement after the trip expressing sentiments not shared by any former official or expert consulted by NBC News, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said, “We have robust law enforcement cooperation with Mexico, which has enabled us to take successful action against cartels, transnational criminal organizations, drug traffickers and human smugglers, and that will continue.”

Donahue, who spent two years in Mexico City and went on to become the DEA’s deputy chief of operations, said, “I would not call their almost complete lack of cooperation on the counternarcotic efforts ‘robust.’” 

After Watson’s statement was issued, a senior Biden administration official acknowledged to NBC News that “we need to be doing a lot more on the law enforcement side” but added, “We’ve found that we make a lot more progress by having the candid discussions in private rather than wagging our fingers in public.”

The official said the Biden administration has made progress after it inherited a “completely broken” law enforcement relationship in January 2021.

“I give them a ‘B-plus’ for effort and a ‘D’ for results, said John Feeley, a former senior State Department official who spent decades focusing on counternarcotics in Latin America in administrations of both parties.

A decadeslong problem

The multibillion-dollar trade in illegal drugs has long been a festering sore on the North American continent. U.S. demand for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin fuels vicious, well-funded criminal organizations that thrive in a Mexico rife with corruption and lawlessness. The cartels use their riches to buy American weapons and bribe U.S. officials. U.S. politicians denounce the cartels while saying little about where their money comes from.

Meth found in a spare tire at the Ysleta port of entry in El Paso, Texas, on June 15, 2021.
Meth found in a spare tire at the Ysleta port of entry in El Paso, Texas, on June 15, 2021.CBP

But the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is killing Americans at a fast clip, has raised the stakes dramatically. Washington is angry, and U.S. lawmakers are calling for military action against the cartels — potential acts of war against America’s neighbor and largest trading partner.

“We have a game changer here, and the game changer is a hundred thousand dead people a year,” Feeley said. “Yet, when we most need cooperation on law enforcement and rule of law, we have almost nothing.”

In 2021, 106,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the U.S., more than 70,000 of them largely from fentanyl, according to the National Institutes of Health. Increasingly, people are dying because they took drugs they weren’t aware were fentanyl-laced. No community or demographic group has been spared.

National Institute on Drug Abuse

U.S. officials and international experts say the vast majority of the fentanyl sold in the U.S. is produced in Mexico using precursors imported from China.

“The Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco cartel and their affiliates control the vast majority of the fentanyl global supply chain, from manufacture to distribution,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told Congress last month. “The cartels are buying precursor chemicals in the People’s Republic of China,, transporting the precursor chemicals from the PRC to Mexico, using the precursor chemicals to mass produce fentanyl, pressing the fentanyl into fake prescription pills, and using cars, trucks and other routes to transport the drugs from Mexico into the United States for distribution.”

She said it costs the cartels as little as 10 cents to produce a fentanyl-laced fake prescription pill that is sold in the U.S. for $10 to $30. 

“The cartels are engaging in deliberate, calculated treachery to deceive Americans and drive addiction to achieve higher profits,” she said.

When he took office in 2018, López Obrador, a leftist populist, announced that his policy toward drug cartels would be “hugs, not bullets.”

Last week, he told reporters, “Here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl.”

He blamed the U.S. overdose crisis on “social decay” in American society, adding, “We deeply lament what’s happening in the United States — but why don’t they fight the problem ... and more importantly why don’t they take care of their youth?”

Fentanyl pills, meth and other drugs seized in Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 23.
Fentanyl pills, meth and other drugs seized in Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 23.Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes via Twitter

It wasn’t always this way. The relationship slowly decayed from its peak, when joint U.S.-Mexico operations became common in the 2000s under Presidents George Bush and Felipe Calderón. They had started to fall off when Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2013. After the U.S. arrested Mexico’s defense minister on corruption charges in October 2020, López-Obrador largely ended what little cooperation remained, even making it difficult for DEA agents to remain in the country, Feeley and other experts said. 

Mexico was so incensed by the arrest that then-Attorney General William Barr ultimately dropped the case and handed the minister back to Mexico, which exonerated him despite evidence he worked on behalf of a violent drug cartel. Officials on both sides were left seething by the whole affair, current and former U.S. officials say.

A complicated relationship

Privately, U.S. officials say that in his comments about fentanyl, López Obrador was reacting to comments from Republican lawmakers in recent weeks calling on military action against the drug traffickers in Mexico and proposing to designate drug cartels as terrorist organizations.

“We’re going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called on the president to “give the military the authority to go after these organizations wherever they exist.”

The idea of unilateral U.S. military action against the cartels inside Mexico is anathema to almost any Mexican politician, let alone one who stakes his identity on defying the U.S. 

The reality is that the U.S. badly needs Mexico’s cooperation on a host of issues, experts say, not least the mass migration crisis on the southern U.S. border. Mexico is America’s largest trading partner and its most common tourist destination, and it hosts the biggest community of expatriate Americans. The possibility that a U.S. president will take military action in Mexico against the wishes of the government there seems extremely remote.

“We are not contemplating military action against Mexico,” Watson, the NSC spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Everyone acknowledges the Biden administration is in a difficult bind. It needs Mexico’s help on fentanyl, but it isn’t getting much, and it has very little leverage to do anything about it.

A spokeswoman for the DEA declined to comment for this article. But Milgram of the DEA detailed for Congress recently how Mexico refuses to share even basic data. 

“We are not getting information on seizures of precursor chemicals,” she said. “We are very concerned about the clandestine labs across Mexico, and we have offered and continue to offer and stand ready to work in partnership with Mexican authorities to dismantle and take down those clandestine labs throughout Mexico jointly and to be of any service that we can.”

Furthermore, she added, Mexico is slow-walking dozens of U.S. extradition requests.

“One of the things we are looking for Mexico to do is to arrest and extradite more individuals to the United States,” she said. “Last year, Mexico extradited 24 drug-related defendants to the United States, but there are 232 drug-related defendants that are awaiting extradition.”

Donahue said the corruption runs so deep in Mexico that Mexican law enforcement spends more time surveilling DEA agents than it does cartel members.

The problems are obvious. Much less clear is how to solve them. One proposal, embraced by some Republican lawmakers and a few experts, such as Feeley, is to designate the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Barr, the former attorney general, recently argued that the U.S. should use the military to defeat the cartels, although he left it hazy whether he was saying the U.S. should do that even without Mexico’s permission, which could qualify as an act of war.

Feeley says the U.S. can’t take unilateral action in Mexico, but he and others argue that a terrorist designation would allow prosecutors to more easily go after Americans who help the cartels, using a “material support for terrorism” charge that carries far more stigma than a drug offense.

The Biden administration opposes the terrorism designation, a senior administration official said, but it isn’t opposed to expanding legal authorities to target cartels.

“I do think the Biden administration has been pretty patient with Mexico,” said Rudman of the Wilson Center. “Maybe at times too patient.”