(Trends Wide) — Almost a year after the DEA detained former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and indicted him on drug trafficking charges, the Biden government sends three cabinet members and White House officials to Mexico to repair ties that are crucial to deal with migrant flows and drug and arms trafficking across the border.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and Secretary of Justice Merrick Garland will visit Mexico later this week for what the White House calls the first High-Level Security Dialogue between United States and Mexico. This indicates the priority the Biden administration is giving to restoring security cooperation after months of backstage disputes.
President Biden, who took office promising allies that “America is back” after four years of tension during the previous administration, has faced relationship headwinds with some of the country’s closest friends, all in between. of a series of crises. These include clumsy coordination with allies in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the recent agreement with the United Kingdom to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, prompting protests from France.
With regard to its relationship with Mexico, the Biden administration is eager to help resolve crises that are closely tied to domestic politics in the United States: the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants at the southern border and the movement of the Mexican cartels to flood the United States with fake prescription drugs laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is fueling a historic number of overdoses on American streets.
“One concern I have is that with everything that is going on in Afghanistan, now this diplomatic chaos – if we can call it that – with the French, and an administration that is clearly recalibrating policy towards China, is the danger, the omnipresent danger of let Mexico be taken for granted, “said Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “And that not enough strategic bandwidth is dedicated to a relationship that plays a critically important role for the well-being and security of the United States, which is the relationship with Mexico.”
During the summer, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and said that she is convinced that the United States and its neighbor are “embarking on a new era”, which makes clear the interdependence and interconnectedness between the countries. The vice president’s visit did not lead to a thaw in relations as expected.
The tensions can be blamed, at least in part, on a DEA operation that lasted for years and led to the arrest, last October, of General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Zepeda, Secretary of Defense from 2018 to 2018, was arrested while on vacation with his family in Los Angeles.
The Mexican government’s anger over how the arrest was handled, without prior notice to Mexican authorities, exposed the long undercurrent of resentment over how the United States has approached the relationship. In Mexico there is widespread irritation over the fact that the United States puts migration and drugs that travel north at the center of security collaboration and not the endemic violence experienced by the citizens of Mexico due to the flow of drugs. illegal weapons arriving from the United States.
Mexico retaliated by largely suspending DEA operations in the country, and US officials say Mexican authorities threatened to withdraw from immigration agreements that the Trump administration considered key to curbing border crossings.
Then-Attorney General William Barr quickly called Mexican authorities to say that he himself was surprised by Cienfuegos’ arrest and vowed to return the general to Mexico, according to people briefed on the talks. A month later, the Justice Department dropped the charges against Cienfuegos and sent him home. Some Trump administration officials were concerned that Mexican authorities would allow an avalanche of migrants to flow in the middle of the US election campaign. Within the Justice Department, high-ranking officials viewed the Cienfuegos case as not worthwhile enough to cause a disruption in ties with Mexico. Mexico’s Foreign Secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, later said that he spoke with Barr after Cienfuegos’s arrest and expressed Mexico’s “discontent.”
“We have an alliance against organized crime and it was not, for us, the government of Mexico, understandable that being allies we were not notified,” Ebrard told reporters.
But despite the return of Cienfuegos, relations did not return to normal.
The change of government in the United States added new complications: with the departure of Trump, the threats he had made on a regular basis to designate the Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations also ended. Those threats, which the Mexican government feared would cause disruption between the two countries, had led Mexico to extradite dozens of cartel suspects wanted by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to U.S. officials from the previous and current administrations. Although US officials never took those threats seriously, the truth is that they worked and Barr was able to secure Mexican aid against cartel operations.
Officials in the Biden administration found no such influence in Mexico.
The extraditions stopped, US officials say. And Mexico has not approved any visa for DEA agents this year, they add. Usually, the process to obtain the visas takes about a month, but many of these agents have been waiting more than six months, according to the sources.
“Collaboration on security and law enforcement has dropped to levels we haven’t seen since probably the first half of the first decade of the century,” Sarukhan said. “If the security relationship continues to create noise and friction points, it could wreak havoc and contaminate the bilateral relationship as a whole.”
A State Department spokesperson said: “Mexico remains a key partner of the United States on security matters and we are committed to working with the López Obrador administration to advance shared priorities, strengthen Mexico’s ability to fight corruption. and impunity, and implement more effective strategies to dismantle transnational organized crime, including through operational cooperation for law enforcement in Mexico. “
Barriers to DEA operations
The DEA remains unable to carry out most operations in Mexico, and the issue has been discussed in conversations between high-ranking officials from the two countries in recent months, US officials said.
Although the DEA has extended the stay of some agents who were already in the country, the visa issue affects nearly two dozen agents, US officials said, and is making it difficult to work with informants, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
In light of the Cienfuegos operation, the Mexican authorities acknowledged that they had long wanted to review the great discretion they had granted the DEA for operations in their country. Due to United States concerns about widespread corruption issues in Mexico, the DEA works with authorized Mexican law enforcement and security units, limiting the Mexican government’s visibility into sensitive intelligence information and operations that it is responsible for. American agency seeks to perform.
The challenges and mistrust in the agreement were revealed in 2014, when Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most wanted drug traffickers by the United States, was arrested by the Mexican authorities with the help of the DEA and a year later he escaped from the high security prison in Mexico where he was. In 2016, the United States provided intelligence and other assistance to a force of Mexican marines that had been specially approved to re-arrest Guzmán. That time he was extradited to the United States, where he was convicted and is now serving a life sentence.
Mexico’s refusal to grant visas to DEA agents is one of the small but significant irritants in the relationship at the moment, which is contributing to a deterioration in the security relationship between border countries.
The Biden administration has struggled to contain crises for which aid from Mexico is crucial: the migrant crisis escalating along the southern border and a burgeoning trade by Mexican cartels flooding the United States with fake fentanyl prescription pills, which according to US authorities is fueling overdose deaths.
The Biden administration, like those that preceded it, is partly relying on Mexico to cope with the flow of migrants to the border. Officials are expected to discuss Mexico’s performance on this point during this week’s visit, according to an administration official.
The rate at which migrants, mainly Haitians, arrived at the southern border of the United States last month took the Biden administration by surprise.
The migrants traveled primarily by bus, reducing travel time, and appeared to traverse through Mexico easily, according to a Customs and Border Protection official.
Later, Mexico stepped up control of migrants crossing the country, stopping dozens of buses with Haitians heading to the US border, after thousands of them gathered under the Del Rio international bridge. An official from the Department of Security Nacional told reporters that the United States is “working closely” with the Mexican government to try to improve visibility on organized migrant movements.
The administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Samantha Power, met with the Mexican ambassador, Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, to discuss shared priorities, including migration. “Lack of economic opportunity is one of the root causes of irregular migration. (USAID) is proud to partner with the Mexican people to achieve long-term and sustainable development goals,” Power said in a tweet.
A court ruling that orders the Biden government to revive the border policy of the Trump era that forced migrants to remain in Mexico until a date for their presentation before an immigration court in the United States also looms over the dialogues between the United States and Mexico. Unidos, a policy that requires some acceptance by Mexico. During the Trump years, that policy resulted in thousands of people camped out along Mexico’s northern border, often waiting in dire conditions.
Within the administration there has been a greater sense of urgency for the “Remain in Mexico” policy, within the framework of the ongoing legal litigation over a public health order that allows the expulsion of migrants, according to a source familiar with the discussions. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security said it is conducting “high-level diplomatic discussions” with Mexico about restarting the policy, while saying it planned to reissue a memorandum ending the program.