WASHINGTON ― The Senate’s annual defense policy bill includes a provision that would require enhanced cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican militaries to crack down on the illicit trafficking of fentanyl, the leading cause of drug overdoses in the United States.
The bipartisan legislation is the latest in a series of congressional proposals to crack down on fentanyl trafficking, even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains hesitant to acknowledge the issue, and as nearly all Republican presidential candidates advocate for the unilateral use of force against Mexico-based drug cartels.
Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tim Kaine, D-Va., added their Disrupt Fentanyl Trafficking Act as an amendment to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act when the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced it in June.
“I’m taking the national security threat of fentanyl seriously by stemming this problem at its source: Mexican transnational criminal organizations,” Ernst told Defense News in a statement this week. “Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to acknowledge Mexico’s role in the crisis, and the Biden administration has failed to fully engage Mexico and take this crisis seriously.”
López Obrador won his 2018 presidential campaign vowing to deescalate the war on drugs and preserve Mexican sovereignty, using the slogan “abrazos, no balazos,” or “hugs, not bullets.” He has refused to acknowledge that fentanyl production takes place in Mexico, and in March blamed the crisis on familial disintegration in the U.S. as well as “a lack of love, of brotherhood, of hugs.”
A January 2020 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration identified Mexico and China as primary sources for fentanyl trafficked into the United States, and said India is emerging as a source for related chemicals. China suspended fentanyl cooperation with the U.S. after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited Taiwan last year.
Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval González acknowledged the issue in April, reporting that authorities have seized 37 fentanyl pill manufacturing sites in Mexico since López Obrador took office.
Kaine said his legislation with Ernst in the defense bill “is an urgently needed step forward in our work to protect Americans from fentanyl by utilizing Pentagon tools like counter-drug intelligence and involving Mexico as an active partner to disrupt Mexican cartel activity.”
The bill would require U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “to enhance cooperation” with Mexican defense officials “to target, disrupt and degrade transnational criminal organizations within Mexico that traffic fentanyl.” It would also require a report on these efforts as well as a Pentagon strategy to disrupt fentanyl trafficking.
“While the current rhetoric from Mexico City may cause some dissonance and headlines, the actual, on-the-ground relationship between [the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense] and [the Mexican Navy] with the U.S. [Defense Department] has grown closer in the past 15 years than it was in the past 70 years,” said Inigo Guevara, the former director of analysis for Mexico’s Office of the National Security Council, who is now a managing director at Janes Strategic Services.
Guevara said the “ ‘abrazos, no balazos’ security policy has prevented the Mexican security forces from fully engaging in the fight against criminal organizations as they did in the last two previous administrations,” but noted that “recent orders for the Mexican armed forces to re-engage on this issue has prompted a flurry of operations at Mexico’s ports.”
The two leading Republican presidential candidates, former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have threatened a naval blockade on Mexican ports to stop the precursor chemicals for fentanyl from getting into Mexico.
Trump and DeSantis have also pledged to use military force against Mexico-based cartels, and the other leading Republican candidates have joined them in doing so. That includes former Vice President Mike Pence, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, introduced a bill in January that would authorize the president to use military force in Mexico against cartels. It currently has 20 Republican co-sponsors, including two who lead panels on the House Armed Services Committee: Reps. Mike Waltz of Florida and Jack Bergman of Michigan.
Juan Pablo Bickel, a Latin America research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, expressed doubt that the proposals to use military force in Mexico would advance, but warned the rhetoric could further complicate bilateral security relations and other areas, such as trade.
“One of the biggest problems there is trust between the two sides,” Bickel told Defense News. “The rhetoric will just exacerbate [López Obrador] being apprehensive and trying not to cooperate.”
Bickel said another congressional proposal to give U.S. Southern Command jurisdiction over military relations with Mexico would fill a gap that would allow enhanced information sharing for counter-drug activities between the U.S. and its Latin American partners.
The House’s Pentagon spending bill, which the Appropriations Committee advanced along party lines in June, would move Mexico from U.S. Northern Command to U.S. Southern Command.
But Guevara argued that “Mexico’s presence in NORTHCOM, including physical liaison offices and desks, has been a major factor in U.S.-Mexico rapprochement over the past 20 years.”
“The reallocation of Mexico to SOUTHCOM would create a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare, as well as severely damage that relationship,” he warned.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.