Fentanyl Follies: Loose Talk in Washington and Mexico City

Fentanyl Follies: Loose Talk in Washington and Mexico City

On both sides of the Rio Grande, realism is in order.


Until recently, relations between Mexico and the United States had largely been centered around immigration, almost to the exclusion of other concerns, with the Biden administration seeking to control cross-border flows while moving away from former President Donald Trump’s harsh “build the wall” rhetoric. However, lately, another sensitive issue, narcotics trafficking, which had been relatively dormant in recent years, has become a high-profile source of friction, with harsh words over fentanyl emanating from both Washington and Mexico City, followed by some efforts to defuse tensions.

Unquestionably, there is reason for concern regarding fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opiate, as it has increasingly become the product of choice among U.S. consumers of hard drugs. It is fifty times more potent than heroin. 70,000 deaths per year have been attributed to fentanyl overdoses, out of a total of 100,000 narcotics-related deaths.


Fentanyl’s precursor chemicals are produced in China, cross the Pacific by sea, and are smuggled into Mexican ports. The final product is then created in laboratories in Mexico and sent to the United States. The infrastructure for this, of course, already exists as Mexican drug trafficking organizations have long been major sources of heroin and cocaine entering the United States.

Calls in Washington for Unilateral Action Provoke a Sharp Response

With fentanyl deaths rising and receiving extensive coverage in the media, American politicians have become engaged. Republican Representatives Michael Waltz and Dan Crenshaw have submitted draft legislation authorizing the use of military force against the fentanyl trafficking cartels, while Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John Kennedy have submitted a bill designating the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

The evident intention of these bills is to put the United States in a position to take unilateral kinetic action against the cartels whether or not Mexico agrees, as has been done against terrorist targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Although Crenshaw did tell Mexico that “we would love to have you as a partner,” the implication behind such a statement is that the United States should act in any event. And Trump publicly stated that if re-elected he will “order the Department of Defense to make appropriate use of special forces, cyber warfare and other overt and covert actions” against the cartels.

Mexican president Andres Manuel López Obrador reacted immediately to these initiatives. Never one to hold back on his own rhetoric, he asserted that fentanyl was America’s problem and the result of its “social decay,” rather than that of Mexico which, he said, does not produce or consume the product. This claim of Mexican non-involvement is true only if one somehow does not consider the processing laboratories in Mexican soil as production. And as for consumption, while it has not become a major issue in Mexico yet, there are documented examples of it taking place there.

Obrador has gone so far as threatening to urge Mexican-Americans to vote against Republicans if they do not cease their pressure campaign. This has resulted in some pushback from activists from that community, who have suggested that, instead, he should be concentrating on securing the safety of would-be immigrants—there was recently a fire at a Mexican detention center along the border in which forty detainees died.

Foreign Minister Marcel Ebrard also took up the cry against the American congressmen, going so far as to say he would call upon consular officials stationed in the United States to mount a public relations campaign “to defend Mexico.” And unsurprisingly, Mexican officials have also repeated their often-used response to American pressure on security issues, asserting (with considerable truth) that their country is flooded with weapons that are smuggled in from the north.

Answer: An Action Plan

After several weeks of sniping by American congressmen on one side and the López Obrador administration on the other, there has been some effort to turn down the heat. The Biden administration has avoided reacting to the Republicans’ offensive on the issue, doubtless viewing it as a complement to their ongoing effort to characterize its immigration policy as ineffective, despite the reality that fentanyl is smuggled into the United States through border crossings and not through illegal immigration.

For its part, despite its initial (and highly predictable) hostile reaction to U.S. congressional pressure, Mexico apparently has grudgingly accepted the need to be seen as “doing something” on fentanyl. A meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials took place on April 13, and Mexico has announced a fentanyl action plan which covers ground that will be familiar to those who have followed drug policy initiatives over the years.

The elements of this plan include creating a coordinating body within the Mexican government to address fentanyl, increasing the number of army personnel monitoring land customs stations and the number of navy and customs personnel at maritime ports, creating a special unit within the national prosecutor’s office dedicated to synthetic drugs and weapons, and establishing a protocol for consultations between the Mexican Finance Ministry and the U.S. Treasury Department on money laundering.

And after saying that fentanyl was entirely a U.S. problem, López Obrador has at least recognized that the precursor chemicals are entering Mexico. He has written to Chinese president Xi Jinping asking that action be taken to halt their flow. He is still awaiting a response.

At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department has recently announced charges of fentanyl trafficking against the sons of now-imprisoned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, together with a $10 million reward for their capture. In addition to whatever legal merits this step may have, it has come at a moment when the Biden administration would certainly benefit from the appearance of aggressive action on this issue. However, López Obrador has criticized the United States for operating without consulting Mexican authorities, and said that his law enforcement priority is “public safety.” Further, while Mexican cooperation with the United States on fighting drugs will continue, López Obrador noted that it is at a “second level” of importance, seemingly undercutting any impact of the previously announced action plan.

The Drug Issue Always Comes Back

Thus it is not clear if the politics of fentanyl will remain conflictive or whether some sustained effort will be made to lower the decibel level. History shows that U.S. politicians and media become periodically seized on the issue of drugs coming from Mexico.

This includes during the Nixon administration when the border was nearly shut down for thirty days in “Operation Intercept”; during the Reagan administration, where at one point U.S. customs briefly repeated this action in an effort to put pressure on Mexico to address the abduction of a Drug Enforcement Agency agent; and during the Bush and Obama administrations, when, more productively, in response to the unprecedented rise of powerful drug cartels, the United States provided massive counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico under the so-called “Merida Initiative,” including aid to the police and military and also resources for judicial reform and human rights observance.

The narcotics issue, now manifesting itself as fentanyl, rises and falls as a public concern but never goes away. And the pattern of a spike in concern and the exchange of heated rhetoric by politicians, followed by an effort to return the issue to normal bureaucratic channels is likely to repeat itself. Ultimately, both countries have an interest in preventing the issue from disrupting the overall relationship. But in managing the issue, policymakers on both sides of the border will have to recognize certain unchanging realities.

The United States Needs to Get Real…

One reality that the United States must face is that unilateral action—subjecting the drug cartels to counterterrorist-style operations without Mexican consent—is a non-starter. Indeed, one may ask whether those promoting it are truly serious or are just looking to score political points. But if reiterated often enough an idea, no matter how dangerous, can go from the fringes to the center of debate, moving the famous “Overton window” of thinkable policy options.

First and foremost, unilateral action would not work. “Decapitation” strategies are unlikely to change the capabilities of the drug cartels if not accompanied by broader efforts to reclaim state presence in the large, lawless areas of rural Mexico in which they operate. Killing an individual drug lord or destroying an individual laboratory will have little effect without long-term follow-up by the Mexican government. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose career includes service in Colombia, has stressed that counternarcotics operations are fruitless without local “support and approval.”


And few things would be more likely to make such cooperation impossible than unilateral military action within Mexico by the U.S. armed forces. The country’s historic memory includes the 1846–48 Mexican War in which much of its north was annexed and during which Mexico City was occupied. It also includes the U.S. interventions during the administration of Woodrow Wilson in which the port city of Veracruz was occupied and General John Pershing embarked on a “punitive expedition” against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico.

Given this history, no Mexican government could tolerate U.S. forces acting on its soil without its consent. It would likely mean that cooperation on immigration, the other top U.S. priority, would stop, and instead of Mexican security forces discouraging periodic caravans of would-be immigrants trudging towards the border from Central and South America, they would simply let them pass.