As in the old days, a poster nailed to the wall puts a price on the heads of the capos. This is the new campaign of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) against the Sinaloa cartel. A string of sheets with the faces of seven of their chiefs, from historical as The May Zambada to the sons of El Chapo Guzmán, has appeared this week deployed along the border. A total reward of 900 million pesos -about 45 million dollars- in exchange for information that she gives with the capture of him. Neither the “wanted” signs, nor the names nor the money offered is new, the DEA website has been with the same ads for years. The striking thing has been the way of presenting them, all together, in the old way and traveling the 3,000 kilometers of the border. A message of firmness for the southern neighbor at a time when Mexico’s relationship with the US, and in particular with the DEA, has become tense after recent disagreements on security.
The closure of the elite Mexican anti-drug investigation unit, which for more than 25 years worked hand in hand with its US counterpart, has been the latest chapter in a series of disagreements with the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The shelving of the anti-narcotics group, which shared confidential information with the DEA and participated in key operations such as the arrest of El Chapo Guzmán, was made known at the end of April by information from the agency Reuters but the decision was made more than a year ago. The Mexican president defended his decision, accusing the group that worked with the DEA of “fabricating crimes,” “being infiltrated by criminals,” and “doing what they wanted.”
The supposed freedom of movement in Mexican territory was the same argument used by López Obrador two years ago to curb the activity within the country of foreign intelligence services. A measure especially focused on US agents and that was one of the first sources of tension with the northern neighbor in full transition, then, with the Joe Biden government. The disagreements with the DEA as the protagonist have been just one of the edges on the security agenda within the bilateral relationship, where the migratory challenge also enters, which has focused a good part of the last conversations.
The low profile with which the shelving of the elite anti-narcotics group was handled by both governments gives an example of the compromised moment that the negotiations are going through, whose priority is to start the new collaboration framework. The so-called Bicentennial Understanding, formally announced at the end of last year, succeeds the Mérida Initiative, in force for 14 years. The new plan is more geared towards prevention and with more weight on the Mexican agenda. The fight against arms trafficking, one of Mexico’s historical demands, is one of the issues that has gained relevance, but still needs diplomatic progress to become a reality.
The fentanyl trail
In this context, the DEA’s striking campaign against the Sinaloa cartel takes place. “The reward is not unusual, but the will to make it so public is. It can be interpreted as a sign that the relationship with the DEA has deteriorated and they send a message that they are going after them even though they are not a priority for the Mexican government,” says security analyst Alejandro Hope. Despite the consolidation of the militarization imposed by López Obrador with the creation of the National Guard and the massive deployment of the Army in the streets, the Government’s strategy is more focused on containment than on attacking organized crime mafias. A policy embodied in one of the president’s favorite mottos: “hugs and not bullets.”
The figures of violence, however, hardly give a respite. At the end of last year, at the halfway point of the Obrador administration, there was an interruption in the upward trend in murders, a slight drop of 4% from the ceiling reached two years ago. Meanwhile, across the border, the death spiral from synthetic opioid overdoses continues unabated. Last year alone, it caused more deaths in the US than the sum of deaths from firearms and car accidents, according to official figures. The US authorities maintain a red alert in the face of the fentanyl epidemic, a powerful chemical opiate 50 times stronger than heroin and whose trail increasingly passes through Mexico.
“The US perceives an important change from 2019”, adds the security expert. “China begins to impose controls on the export of fentanyl in finished format. Therefore, Mexico ceases to be a transit country for this drug and begins to produce it from Asian precursors”. The manufacture of pills of other drugs laced with fentanyl is behind the rise in unintentional overdose deaths and is one of the top concerns of the US drug agency. And there the Sinaloa mafia appears with force, with a presence in 14 of the 32 Mexican states according to a recent study, and whose fentanyl laboratories are one of its most lucrative businesses.
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