A year ago, Mexico and the United States launched a “High-Level Security Dialogue” (HLSD). In recognition of the 200 years of bilateral relations, they agreed on a “Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities,” with the hope of rebuilding cooperation to counter the deadly crime that harms many tens of thousands on both sides of the border.
In January 2022, the two governments further agreed on a set of objectives for the security partnership, to cover three pillars of cooperation: protecting our people, preventing cross-border crime, and pursuing criminal networks. The challenge became turning those objectives into measurable progress and outcomes.
These efforts to bolster cooperation are needed. However, it’s not clear how much progress has been achieved. When senior U.S. and Mexican officials gather soon to review results, we should look for a frank review of outcomes to date and a clear action plan for concrete results going forward, including proposals to better tackle illicit financial flows, as U.S. senators recently urged.
Reports in recent months indicate that cross-border crime continues to grow, with networks operating in both countries, and that criminal groups are more powerful in Mexico and internationally.
There have been frequent incidents of violence by criminal gangs plaguing Mexican states, including along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico’s government is increasing the role of the military in fighting crime to help tackle these problems. Some worry that the proposed reforms will deepen the weakness of Mexico’s law enforcement and judicial authorities, rather than provide a good long-term strategic framework.
More deadly drugs are being discovered at the border and elsewhere in the United States and U.S. drug overdose deaths are soaring. Seizures of fentanyl at the border jumped significantly in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2022. The 10-month totals surpassed the amount of this deadly synthetic opioid seized in all of FY 2021. The 2022 seizures also are more than 2.5 times greater than the amount of fentanyl seized in FY 2020, according to Customs and Border Patrol figures.
Two Mexican crime groups, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, are the main sources of this deadly cargo. The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently warned in a TV interview that “the greatest threat facing our communities, our families, our kids is the deadly fentanyl that we are seeing in the United States that is brought here by the two cartels in Mexico.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an alarming rise in deaths from overdoses of synthetic opioids. For the 12 months ending in March 2022, they tally over 70,000 deaths, up from 62,000 in March 2021.
In Mexico, homicides have been at record highs since 2019. Statistics show a drop of 8-9 percent in the first half of the year. However, it is not clear if the decline in homicides will endure, or if it might be due to consolidation of control by cartels over drug smuggling routes, for example. There are frequent reports of violence in the streets when authorities move to rein in criminal groups. There are also reports of criminal gangs expanding influence over non-drug commerce, from avocados to convenience stores and even to water sources. Cartels also have expanded their roles in smuggling migrants to the U.S.
One of the most comprehensive regular reports of violence in Mexico, The Mexico Peace Index 2022, concludes that despite some improvements, “the longer-term trends indicate a marked deterioration in peacefulness between 2015 and 2021.”
Not surprisingly, Mexico’s statistics agency found more Mexicans feeling insecure (67 percent) in mid-2022. State Department travel cautions to American citizens provide detailed security warnings about traveling to 29 of the 31 Mexican states, and warn citizens not to travel at all to six states.
The Mexican government is turning increasingly to the military for a range of tasks, including public security. It is placing its militarized National Guard, which is on the front lines of fighting criminal violence, formally under the Army and extending the Guard’s role to 2028.
While the presence of heavily-armed security forces can staunch violence, many experts note that these forces are not trained to investigate crimes or to work with prosecutors to successfully bring charges and win convictions against those arrested. Already, a mere 1 in 10 crimes are reported in Mexico. There are relatively few investigations of the crimes reported and not many convictions of those arrested, and budgets for judicial authorities have been reduced.
Security and crime experts argue that the current policy is failing. It is far from clear that turning more responsibility over to the military will provide long-term solutions to Mexico’s crime problems. And, Mexico retains its reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries — corruption that is fed by massive proceeds the cartels make from U.S. drug sales.
The same weaknesses that diminish Mexico’s ability to deal with crime hinder the effectiveness of Mexican authorities as partners for the U.S. Trust between law enforcement and justice agencies was severely undermined during the Trump administration and deteriorated sharply when the U.S. arrested a former defense minister on drug charges. That arrest prompted Mexico to pass a law in 2020 that severely limits the ability for confidential U.S.-Mexico law enforcement investigations.
The new “Bicentennial Framework” for cooperation was established to rebuild trust and cooperation. It is hoped that agency-to-agency cooperation, including capacity-building, will sprout again, allowing more confidential cooperation against the illicit trade headed north and south (e.g., arms).
Without positive results from cooperation, including a reduction in drug flows and the dismantling of networks that control this trade, however, calls will grow for stronger and unilateral U.S. steps. The best way forward is for the “Bicentennial Framework” to produce a credible joint action plan and, ultimately, concrete results.
Former ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.