The brazen kidnap and murder of Americans in a Mexican border city has exposed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to calls in Washington for a drastic crackdown on Mexico’s drug cartels as US opioid deaths soar.
Four US citizens were kidnapped by gunmen shortly after travelling from Texas to Matamoros on March 3 for cosmetic surgery. Two were later found dead and two alive. A letter attributed to Mexico’s Gulf Cartel apologised for the crimes and said it was handing over the five men responsible.
Republican politicians seized on the kidnapping and murders to call for US military intervention against Mexican drug lords and to attack López Obrador for “enabling” traffickers. The Biden administration has resisted calls for additional powers to tackle the cartels, saying it has the authority it needs and is already taking a tough line.
But pressure from Washington is mounting after official figures showed that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid smuggled from Mexico, killed more than 70,000 Americans in the year to last August.
López Obrador has insisted that Mexico does not produce fentanyl — even though the US state department’s annual narcotics report said Mexico was the “only significant source” of illicit fentanyl last year — and has lashed out at the lawmakers calling for US military action against the cartels.
“We are not going to allow a foreign government to intervene, far less the armed forces of a foreign government,” the old-school leftwing nationalist said at his daily news conference. “Mexico must be respected. We are not a protectorate of the United States or a United States colony.”
López Obrador’s tirade came shortly before President Joe Biden’s top homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall met him last Thursday in a visit to Mexico planned before the kidnappings. The US delegation also included deputy attorney-general Lisa Monaco.
Though hundreds of Mexicans are kidnapped by criminals every year, the daylight abduction of the US citizens was caught on a video that went viral and made the story a top news item in US media. It came amid a growing perception on Capitol Hill that Mexico has failed to combat its mushrooming drug cartels effectively.
“That was the spark that all this needed, just adding fuel to a fire that was already there,” said Cecilia Farfán Méndez, head of research at the Center for US-Mexican studies at the University of California San Diego.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator for South Carolina, said last week he wanted to “set the stage to use military force” in Mexico by introducing a bill to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organisations. In a recent letter, 21 state attorneys requested that Biden make the designation, which would allow the US to use lethal military force.
“We are going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels,” Graham said on Wednesday. “Fentanyl overdoses cause the equivalent of a new September 11th every two weeks.”
In a congressional hearing before the Matamoros incident, Merrick Garland, US attorney-general, told senators he would not be opposed to the change, but added that there are “diplomatic concerns, we need the assistance of Mexico in this”.
While Graham’s bill is unlikely to succeed, frustrations are building across the political spectrum. Senior figures from both parties, the current and former attorneys-general, and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration have all said recently that Mexico is not doing enough to stop the flood of fentanyl over the border.
“What worries me is that, for different reasons, the Republicans — both the very radical and the not so radical — and the Democrats are converging,” said Martha Bárcena, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, calling the confluence of events a “perfect storm”.
Mexican officials have reacted to the criticism of their drug policy by pointing out that the US is by far the biggest market for illegal substances.
“They are under a lot of pressure over the situation in the US and sometimes it’s easier to blame someone else than accept that we are facing a very complicated challenge,” Roberto Velasco, under-secretary for North America in Mexico’s foreign ministry, told the Financial Times.
Velasco said the meetings with US officials last week had been respectful and that Mexico would continue to help with controlling the flow of drugs but that its priority was combating gun trafficking.
He said criticism of Mexico by the DEA came just after his country lost 10 military personnel capturing Ovidio Guzmán, son of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“That’s not a way to reinforce co-operation, instead it’s a way of generating mistrust in a moment when we’re working closely together,” he told the FT.
Anxious to secure Mexico’s co-operation in curbing illegal migration, the Biden administration has avoided publicly rebuking López Obrador, who regularly rails against journalists, business leaders and foreign officials who criticise him.
Asked about López Obrador’s assertion that Mexico does not produce fentanyl, US ambassador Ken Salazar said that in his conversations with the president, “there’s a recognition that fentanyl is occurring”.
Mexico is the second-biggest trading partner of the US, and American investment in its southern neighbour has soared in the wake of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which later became the USMCA. More recently, American companies have eyed Mexico as an alternative manufacturing location to China.
But the extensive media coverage of the kidnappings and growing fentanyl deaths in the US is likely to lead to more American pressure on Mexico, at least in private, experts said.
This could include asking Mexico to step up efforts to stop fentanyl and precursor chemicals at ports and airports, speed up extraditions of drug traffickers, spend more public money on security, and share more information with US law enforcement, current and former officials said.
At the meeting in Mexico last week, the two countries discussed a programme to improve inter-agency co-ordination and intelligence sharing, the White House said in a statement, and they would conduct a public health campaign on the risks from consuming fentanyl.
Last week, Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said designating cartels as terrorists would not give the government additional tools. She also stressed that the administration was not afraid to use sanctions against traffickers and their enablers.
López Obrador has pursued a “hugs not bullets” approach to organised crime since taking office in 2018, irking parts of the US government and many in Mexico. The attorney-general’s office has taken few complex criminal investigations to the courts and has widely been accused of pursuing political and personal opponents.