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Fentanyl crisis strains US-Mexico diplomatic relations

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has announced sanctions against individuals and companies linked to Mexican drug cartels

Agents from the Prosecutor's Office unload seized fentanyl in a warehouse in Tijuana (Mexico), in October 2022.
Agents from the Prosecutor's Office unload seized fentanyl in a warehouse in Tijuana (Mexico), in October 2022.Salwan Georges (Getty Images)

The fentanyl crisis has loomed over diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico, sparking fiery debate on the fight against cartels, combating arms trafficking and even immigration. The drug — which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and kills 100,000 people a year in the United States — has become a major priority for the Joe Biden government. The Republican Party uses the crisis as ammunition in its fight against the Democrats, while also casting blame on Mexico. There is a powerful antidote to the cartels and their drugs: economic asphyxiation.

On a visit to Mexico City, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, announced Wednesday that the Office of Foreign Assets Control had imposed economic sanctions against 15 people and two companies linked to the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

“Treasury will continue to employ our sanctions authorities to cut off narco traffickers and their enablers from the U.S. and international financial systems,” Yellen told reporters.

The companies sanctioned are Editorial Mercado Ecuestre, a horse riding publication, and Difaculsa, a retail pharmacy linked to the Beltrán Leyva family. The assets of the sanctioned individuals will also be frozen. Yellen will meet with her Mexican counterparts and bank executives in an effort to “disrupt the illicit finance that sustains transnational organized crime groups.”

The issue of fentanyl trafficking has been discussed at practically every meeting between the United States and Mexico. Talks between Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have always been described as cordial, with the leaders showing a good understanding. “I couldn’t have a better partner than you,” Biden told López Obrador in November, while the Mexican president called his American counterpart “a good man.”

But illicit fentanyl trafficking has cast a shadow over these relations. In September, the Republicans redoubled their offensive against Mexico, proposing that the U.S. army enter Mexican territory to impose order on the drug trafficking cartels. The Democrats distanced themselves from these comments, which congressman Joaquin Castro called “reckless statements that threaten to normalize the idea of invading Mexico.” López Obrador dismissed the idea as ridiculous and pointed out that Mexico was a sovereign nation. The Mexican president said the Republicans were just trying to score points against Biden, who in early October announced that the border wall would be extended by 32 meters. “We had no choice,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in reference to the announcement, which coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Mexico. The matter did not escalate.

But the war with the Republicans has never been far away. The party accused migrants of smuggling drugs into the country and called Mexico a fentanyl laboratory. Even Yellen stated that “the majority of precursor chemicals for illicitly manufactured fentanyl come from China and are synthesized into fentanyl in Mexico.” In April, López Obrador sent a letter to China asking for help to combat the trade of fentanyl, which has been blamed for a surge in overdose deaths in the U.S. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning responded curtly to the letter: “The U.S. should face up to its own problems.”

In mid-November, China, Mexico and the U.S. held talks in San Francisco, which helped calm the rising tensions. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Biden and López Obrador invited Xi to come to Mexico. There has continued to be close cooperation on the fight against fentanyl. In October, Mexican officials were in Beijing to discuss the chemical precursors that are used to manufacture the drug in Mexico.

The United States wants strong action on the issue. Under increasing pressure from the U.S., a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel warned against making and selling fentanyl, threatening their rivals with violence if they did not heed their order. On January 5, Mexico arrested Ovidio Guzmán, son of the infamous El Chapo, in the Sinaloan mountains. Some 29 people were killed in the operation, including 10 soldiers. The rest of the victims were presumed to be members of the criminal group. As on other occasions, the United States provided key information that led to his capture. Ovidio was later extradited to the United States, where he is awaiting trial.

The U.S. is calling on the Mexican government to arrest drug lords and dismantle their laboratories. Mexico, for its part, has called on the U.S. to effectively monitor the weapons that enter Mexico from the U.S. — some 70,000 each year — and to take more measures to fight drug addiction. Fentanyl is a huge public health problem for the United States, while for Mexico, drug violence continues to be a deadly scourge. The two countries are condemned to agree on more than just profitable trade relations.

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