U.S.-Mexico Relations: How to Get Serious about Fentanyl

Members of Congress have publicly decried fentanyl deaths and the criminal groups that contribute to them in recent months, some going so far as to propose military action against these organizations. CDC figures show more than 107,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, roughly 70,000 of which came from synthetic opioids, including illegal fentanyl. The cartels’ bloodshed has grown on both sides of the border; in the last few years, Mexico saw records of over 30,000 cartel-related homicides a year. While some political figures in Mexico suggest drug overdoses are not a problem there, reports are emerging that fentanyl is taking a toll in Mexico too. In March the U.S. State Department warned U.S. travelers of the risks of purchasing medications in Mexico because pills even from brick and mortar pharmacies can be laced with deadly doses of fentanyl. Drug counterfeiting has long been a problem in Mexico and is increasingly becoming a deadly one.

Because fentanyl is lethal, comparatively easy to transport, synthetic, and not based on agriculture (where eradication of the underlying plant would be part of the strategy), fentanyl demands a new bilateral U.S.-Mexico strategy. While the latest measures being proposed in Congress and among incipient presidential campaigns—like designating the cartels as terrorist organizations and authorizing the use of military force against them—sound politically satisfying, they misdiagnose the nature of the problem and will do little to solve it.

The threat from cartels is not a problem set requiring a few precision-guided munitions, or one that can be addressed simply by changing the name of their legal status. Yes, fentanyl is sometimes produced in labs on the outskirts of Mexican towns, but it is also pressed into pills with presses that can easily be operated from any apartment in a city—again, not a task for a projectile.

Furthermore, the main cartels have splintered into the myriad smaller criminal groups that permeate the fabric of Mexican society and are hard to define. The groups self-sustain using revenues from crimes ranging from fuel theft and money laundering to kidnapping and human smuggling. According to a 2022 analysis by a well-reputed Mexican think tank, there are more than 150 criminal groups in Mexico. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates the cartels control over a third of the country. The U.S. State Department has Level 4 (do not travel) warnings in place for six Mexican states and Level 3 (reconsider travel) warnings for U.S. travelers due to crime and violence—much of it related to the cartels—in seven more, showing the diffused nature of the problem.

Given the nature of the challenge, the United States and Mexico should work to limit the safe havens in both countries where criminal groups operate. This will require several steps, including overhauling bilateral security cooperation and heading back toward the early days of the Merida Initiative. This bilateral project began in 2008, and at that time focused on training and equipping Mexican security forces and supporting their actions against organized crime as well as supporting training for prosecutors and police to bring criminal charges. This strategy at its outset made a dent in the cartels’ command and control and set limits on their operations. It also imposed costs. This approach is neither quick nor easy and it will generate more violence in Mexico before it generates less.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has taken some steps, including some recent high-profile arrests of key leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, but he broadly has resisted and reduced U.S. help. His successor, who takes office in October 2024, will have little choice but to step up action, with U.S. support, to target the cartels as outrage grows on both sides of the border and options narrow. Legitimate security forces in the country should take operational control of cities and towns and fentanyl trafficking should be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

While AMLO is likely to resist increased U.S. help in the form of military support and intelligence cooperation in the short run, the U.S. Congress can start now by sizing up the Merida Initiative, now called the Bicentennial Framework, and reintroducing elements within it to support Mexican military and National Guard action against the cartels. The Bicentennial Framework needs to be reviewed to reorient it toward the task of addressing fentanyl. Over the years, bilateral security cooperation has evolved away from “hard” security support like equipment and training and toward addressing social ills in Mexico. This needs to be recalibrated back to include support for vetted units, increased intelligence sharing, and increased operational tempo against cartels and their handlers, led by Mexican security forces. Long-term social elements can stay too, but it should be for all of the above.

Mexico is a target-rich environment, not for U.S. missiles, but for sanctions. The cartels are already designated under the Kingpin Act, which gives the United States the authority to impose sanctions. In addition, the Biden administration issued an executive order in December 2021, Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade, making clear that anyone providing material support, or even facilitating the provision of material support to the cartels, can be sanctioned. And unlike in geographically distant sites, such as the fields of Afghanistan, where military leaders grow and sell poppy plants without links to U.S. financial institutions, sanctions in Mexico will bite hard, as Mexican officials and the population in general are closely interwoven with the United States. Mexican general Salvador Cienfuegos, the former head of the army who was indicted in the United States in 2019, was arrested after a trip with his family to vacation in Southern California, for example. Sanctioning state-level officials in Mexico would have the effect of freezing future U.S. company investments in those states targeted.

This will bite. The United States should start ramping up sanctions by forming a task force between Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the State Department to develop target lists. The State Department will need to be forward leaning—in a way it has not been in Mexico so far—and allow political figures, particularly at the state level, to be sanctioned. The State Department should also begin revoking visas of those linked to the drug trade using preexisting authorities.

The United States and Mexico should double down on tracking and dismantling the networks of funding and precursor chemical trafficking that support the fentanyl trade. There is more that can be done to track dual-use chemicals’ final destinations and to ensure better control of Mexican ports by legitimate security forces and not criminal groups. If commerce needs to be slowed at the Manzanillo Port, which is believed to be one of the major arrival points for chemical precursors from China, so be it. Inspections should be at least doubled and chemicals closely tracked to end-users.

On the U.S. side, the border should be secured. Yes, illegal fentanyl tends to be seized at ports of entry, but this argument is often made by politicians to avoid a discussion of border security. The amount of fentanyl that comes into the United States in places other than ports of entry is—in the parlance of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld—a known unknown. The United States tries to catch fentanyl at ports of entry, so it catches fentanyl there. There is no substitute for securing the rest of the border and the American people should hold the politicians who oppose border security accountable for dereliction of their responsibility. As the United States secures the border, the U.S. government should double northbound inspections at ports of entry and be willing to pay the economic cost (increased wait times) that will entail. This is no panacea, as fentanyl can come in small packages, but new technologies and even artificial intelligence could be deployed to help to identify patterns and increase the success rate of targeting.

The cartel’s criminal networks function in the United States too, and more resources need to be directed by individual state law enforcement agencies toward dismantling them and disrupting the flows of weapons and money back to Mexico. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Sinaloa Cartel is also operating across the United States through networks of friends and family and has been for decades. Fentanyl can come into the United States as a powder, as a pill, cut into other drugs like marijuana and cocaine, or sometimes in droppers and then it is moved across the country and sold. The profits find their way back to Mexico. Federal agencies and state authorities will need to step up collaboration and information-sharing to target and take down these networks.

More resources and attention need to be spent stopping these drugs from being ordered and delivered as easy as pizza across the United States. That includes educating Americans on the risk of drugs procured on social media. Former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” drug campaign, with the images of an egg frying in a pan over the text, “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” needs to have an effective modern analog. The DEA’s “One Pill Can Kill” campaign is good start, but deserves high-level advocacy from U.S. faith, education, sports, and political leaders actively repeating the warnings across TV, radio, and social media networks so Americans understand the unprecedented risk that stems from ordering drugs from unverified sellers online. The United States equally needs to step of messaging on the risks of addiction and increase treatment options for Americans in need.

It is a daunting problem, an urgent one, with no quick-fix solutions. The sooner policymakers do the hard work on both sides of the border, the better.

Kimberly Breier is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She served as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the Department of State from 2018–2019.