Too many Americans are dying from trafficked illegal drugs, and too many Mexicans are dying from violence related to the criminal gangs that traffic drugs. That is the unfortunate summary of a shared problem: Mexican organized crime groups help feed U.S. demand for illegal drugs, and in turn, many billions of U.S. dollars feed the violence and corruption which the criminal groups spawn in Mexico.
More than ever, we need to break this pattern by working together more closely with our southern neighbor. Unfortunately, the harsh words and tone often used regarding Mexico, the lack of appreciation for the strategic importance of having a stronger and more prosperous southern neighbor, and the hardline approach the United States is taking to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are undermining the ability of Mexican officials to maintain, let alone deepen, U.S.-Mexico cooperation against transnational criminal groups.
President Donald Trump is to be praised for highlighting opioid addiction crisis in the United States and promising steps to address it. Regarding Mexico, however, he highlighted that an estimated 90 percent of heroin used in the United States is from Mexico (correct) and added that his proposed border wall would help deal with that. The assertion about the wall is dubious since most hard drugs are believed to enter the United States through legal ports of entry. Strikingly, the president also neglected to mention that his current chief of staff earlier this year had made it a priority to forge agreement with the Mexican government to enhance cooperation against the criminal groups trafficking drugs.
In May 2017, then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other U.S. officials agreed with Mexican counterparts on an overall strategy for strengthening the common effort against the entire chain of illegal drug production, trafficking, sales, etc. That agreement included a promise of action on addiction/drug demand in the United States. Mexican and U.S. officials have been working to implement that strategy since, including going after heroin production.
The United States and Mexico have revalidated and prioritized capacity building and other assistance under the bilateral “Merida” program , which began in 2008. Under Merida, the United States has spent some $1.6 billion to help strengthen Mexican law enforcement and justice institutions, to improve Mexican capacities at its borders and to help strengthen communities beset by criminal cartels and gangs. American assistance has produced good results . At present, the U.S. is working hard with Merida funds, for example, to strengthen the forensic skills of Mexican officials in order that more criminals can be convicted successfully under Mexico’s new justice system. The Mexican government has spent at least ten times what the U.S. has provided to strengthen its own law enforcement, intelligence and justice agencies. Along with Merida assistance, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies have built more effective operational cooperation against criminal groups.
The added effort strengthened the capacities of Mexico’s federal law enforcement and resulted in a large number of cartel and criminal gang leaders being taken off the field. Criminal gang related violence in Mexico capped in late 2011 and has declined as the enhanced government efforts impacted cartels. But over the last several years, criminal groups have significantly increased opioid production and trafficking, and in 2016–17 violence in Mexico, as measured by homicides, has significantly rebounded .
From a U.S. perspective, the sharp rise in drug overdose deaths, particularly from opioids, and the concomitant increase in production of heroin and transshipment of synthetic opioids like fentanyl makes better U.S.-Mexico cooperation an even higher priority. About 64,070 drug overdose deaths in the United States were recorded in 2016, with over 20,000 of those coming from fentanyl and similar drugs and some 15,500 coming from heroin. Since 1999, overdose deaths in the United States involving opioids has quadrupled, fueled initially by abuse of prescription drugs.
Mexican drug cartels observed the rise of U.S. abuse of prescription opioids, and in response, increased heroin production and imports of fentanyl from China to supply growing U.S. demand. Both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies correctly see this as a shared problem. Mexico though has not been able to stop the increase in opium and heroin production in several of its states (and illicit imports from Asia). And, in the United States, the drugs are getting in and being transported far from presumed ports of entry.
On the financial side, the profits from illegal drug sales in the United States are estimated at between $18 and $30 billion. However, neither U.S. nor Mexican authorities have been able to recover anything like those sums of money. However, enough of those profits have gotten back to the criminal groups for them to not only finance the purchase of high-powered weapons and other equipment from the United States, but also to threaten and buy off officials. This has likely contributed to a new wave of violence sweeping through Mexico.