The shockwave of images of four US citizens at the mercy of Mexican drug violence in Matamoros, one of the country’s organized crime hotspots, spread like wildfire in Washington this week - through the halls of Capitol Hill, the offices of embassies and Joe Biden’s administration and the newsrooms of the major media - to the point of provoking an escalation of the most extreme camp of the Republican Party against the Mexican government. That barrage has included accusations against Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a former Trump-era attorney general, William Barr, for not doing enough to fight organized crime and also the response of the former, who revolted against these attacks and denounced his interventionism. “Mexico is respected, we are not a protectorate or a colony of the United States,” said López Obrador.
The four friends whose trip has unleashed the penultimate diplomatic storm had driven from South Carolina to supposedly accompany one of them to undergo cosmetic surgery. They crossed the border through the Brownsville (Texas) crossing and, once in Tamaulipas, they ended up in a chase involving up to nine vehicles, the outcome of which has been repeated over and over again on U.S. cable TV these days. Two of them returned home in a coffin. The other two were found alive on Tuesday and are now back in the United States.
The event provided succulent birdseed for the hawks of the most extreme wing of the Republican Party, who dusted off an old aspiration, as old as, at least, the presidency of Barack Obama, and, later, that of Donald Trump: to name the drug cartels as terrorist groups and empower President Biden to launch military operations in Mexican territory under the pretext of curbing the trafficking of fentanyl, a drug that has contributed to break the record of overdose deaths in the United States once again: 107. 107,000 in the last year.
Two Republican representatives, Michael Waltz (Florida) and Dan Crenshaw (Texas) introduced a bill in Congress in January that would allow the use of “military force against the cartels”. “We cannot allow lethal, heavily armed organizations to destabilize Mexico and bring people and drugs into the United States. We have to start treating them like the Islamic State, because that’s what they are.” And this week Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator, added to the tide of a hard-hitting article by Barr in The Wall Street Journal, with a call for a press conference on Wednesday to vow that the United States will “unleash its full fury and might.” “We will destroy their business model and their way of life because our security depends on it.” Graham specifically addressed López Obrador, as did Crenshaw: “Why are you protecting the cartels?” the latter asked the Mexican leader.
The Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, but the Senate is in the hands of the Democrats, so Waltz and Crenshaw’s initiative has little chance of succeeding. And if it did, it would run up against a wall of legal obstacles to carry it out, and, ultimately, with Biden’s opposition, although no one in his party has come out to discuss those plans: appearing weak with Mexico does not sell politically in the United States of the fentanyl crisis and on the road to the 2024 presidential campaign.
Because of this electoral interest, the Matamoros case has been especially relevant in the argument of a Republican Party that is fully engaged in the pre-campaign. To the insistent recourse to the border crisis, the specter of security is added, as could be seen last weekend in the speeches of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which convenes the most pro-Trump faction.
On the other side of the border, the United States is accused of not having recognized its share of responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking. It is a new clash between the country of drug demand and the country of drug supply. Between a society of consumers plunged into a deep crisis of opiate consumption and another that drags hundreds of thousands of dead in almost two decades of war against the cartels, the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.
“The problem they have in this country,” a Mexican diplomatic source in Washington said this week, “is that the focus is always on the supply side, and not so much on the demand side. It’s always: ‘Look at the poison the narcos are sending us. And they never look at other aspects of a terribly complex problem. For example: that four out of every five opiate addicts in the United States got their start thanks to the prescription of painkillers such as Oxycontin. That said, this week’s images are terrible, very difficult to counter.”
Mexico’s past presidents have had to deal with the security pressures coming from the North and accentuated after cases such as Tamaulipas. But this time, López Obrador’s government considers that it has gone too far. “Once and for all we set our position: we are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene, much less the armed forces of a foreign government in our territory,” said the president last Thursday.
“Mexico would never allow something like that,” said Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who hastened his return from a working tour in Asia after the episode of the kidnapping of the Americans. The foreign minister affirmed that the Republicans’ proposal is “unacceptable” and regretted that an anti-Mexican discourse is being raised for electoral purposes. “They know that the fentanyl pandemic does not originate in Mexico, but in the United States,” added Ebrard, who warned of “catastrophic consequences for binational cooperation against drugs” if the initiative goes forward.
“These are speeches for domestic consumption, in which a nationalistic component is present, but the relationship between the two countries goes beyond all that,” said Roberto Zepeda, an academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In his opinion, the scenario of a definitive rupture is still distant and improbable. Both countries share more than 3,000 kilometers of border, the most intense border flow in the world and commercial activities that exceed 660 billion dollars annually, according to official data. “Mexico is part of the U.S. security perimeter and it would not be convenient for it to open that front,” he continues, especially at a juncture such as the trade conflict with China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
From Mexican diplomatic circles in Washington, it is recalled that an initiative such as the one being proposed has been confronted in the past with the wall of its dubious legality from the point of view of international law. Also, that in the midst of the tensions, Lopez Obrador received Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House advisor for Homeland Security, at the end of this week at the Government headquarters to discuss fentanyl and arms trafficking. That is, what each partner is demanding from the other: Washington wants to curb drug trafficking and Mexico wants the illegal trade of U.S. rifles to stop feeding the cartels.
At the same time, US Ambassador Ken Salazar met in Mexico City with Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero to discuss the same issues. Since October 2021, both countries announced a new security framework known as the Bicentennial Understanding, which has accelerated the extradition of Mexican drug lords in recent months and the exchange of information to capture them. On Washington’s wish list are names such as Rafael Caro Quintero and Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo’s son, and the process is already underway for the extradition of the two countries.
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