Mexico’s Drug War Is Taking a Turn for the Worse

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President Joe Biden’s immediate foreign-policy priority is to repair America’s damaged relationships with international partners. He can start by addressing the breakdown in security cooperation between the U.S. and its southern neighbor, Mexico.

In addition to being one of America’s largest trading partners, Mexico is the biggest foreign source of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking into the U.S. The two countries share an interest in curbing the power of Mexico’s drug cartels, but actions taken in the last month by the Mexican government would do the opposite — endangering citizens on both sides of the border in the process.

In December, Mexico’s Congress approved a new “national security” law restricting the activities of U.S. drug and law-enforcement agents on Mexican soil. Under the law, U.S. agents will face limits on their ability to conduct undercover operations and recruit informants and will be stripped of immunity. They will also be required to provide monthly reports on their activities to the Mexican government. Local officials will need permission from a national-security panel before cooperating with the U.S. and must disclose the substance of any conversations they have with foreign officials. This requirement may compromise sensitive information and put at risk sources key to fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.

The restrictions are backed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose administration was embarrassed by the U.S.’s arrest last fall of former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos on charges of conspiring with drug cartels while in office. After López Obrador reportedly mulled expelling agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency in retaliation, the U.S. Justice Department released Cienfuegos and turned over the evidence against him to Mexican investigators. Last week, López Obrador announced that he was closing the investigation and accused the U.S. of “fabricating” the case against Cienfuegos. Worse, Mexican authorities made public 751 pages of evidence compiled by the Justice Department — a breach of trust that could jeopardize future U.S. cooperation with Mexican criminal proceedings.

Leftist allies of López Obrador now want to renegotiate the Mérida Initiative, under which the U.S. has provided Mexico with $3 billion in security assistance since 2008. Demands that the U.S. scale back its counter-narcotics activities out of respect for its neighbor’s sovereignty might be more persuasive if Mexican authorities had the ability to combat the problem on their own. Under López Obrador, the opposite is happening. Mexico’s murder rate remains high, while trafficking of fentanyl has surged — helping to contribute to a record number of overdose deaths in the U.S.

Biden should conduct a comprehensive review of the two countries’ security relationship. First and foremost, he should press the Mexican government to drop elements in the national-security law that threaten to sever cooperation between U.S. agents and local Mexican law-enforcement bodies, which rely heavily on intelligence provided by the U.S. The administration should also insist that López Obrador prosecute high-ranking officials accused of corruption, increase spending on police, and reinvigorate joint operations against the most dangerous cartels, particularly those involved in the production and smuggling of fentanyl.

In return, Biden should give U.S. agencies more resources to stop the illegal cross-border flow of American weapons, which account for 70% of firearms recovered by Mexican law enforcement. While the administration should ask Congress to maintain current levels of U.S. security assistance — which the Trump administration proposed cutting by one-third — it should move away from a single-minded emphasis on border security. It should place greater emphasis on professionalizing policing, building up the law-enforcement capacities of state and city governments, and promoting proven violence-prevention efforts. U.S. agents should agree to greater transparency about operations conducted inside Mexico, as long as it doesn’t impede critical intelligence-gathering.

Fighting the scourge of drug trafficking and organized crime is critical to the U.S.-Mexican relationship and the stability of the region as a whole. Allowing such cooperation to deteriorate is a mistake that neither country can afford.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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