Drug cartels rise amid Biden’s border shifts and declining cooperation with Mexico

Mexican drug cartels are growing and brimming with cash as the Biden administration works to establish a new approach to law enforcement along the US southern border – a situation made worse by policies Mexico’s own leftist government’s clumsiness and the waves of Chinese-made fentanyl that have been pouring into organized crime networks in recent years.

Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador recently claimed that a slight drop in his country’s murder rate shows his “hugs, not bullets” approach to violence is working, but analysts say cartel activity is actually on the rise. booming in Mexico and the United States, with coordination of law enforcement between the two. at a dangerous low point.

“What we are seeing is an increased level of audacity on the part of smugglers and cartels in general and the reason for that is that our borders are wide open,” says Mark A. Morgan, a former FBI agent from longtime ruler of the United States. Border Patrol under President Obama and served as Acting Commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection under President Trump.

“The cartels are emboldened and strengthened at this time as they feel they can act with impunity due to the lax posture of the current administration,” said Mr. Morgan, now a member of the Heritage Foundation, to the Washington Times in an interview. .

He specifically pointed to the administration’s policy on illegal immigrants, saying the number of people heading north has soared over the past year as migrants have been lured by a sharp decline in deportations since Mr. Biden took office.

Cartels that control and facilitate illegal crossing routes across the US border have also taken advantage of the changing landscape. “No one crosses the US-Mexico border illegally without the direct or tacit approval of the cartels,” said Morgan, who says some three million people have attempted to cross illegally in the past 12 months, more than half a year. double the number of a previous year.

“The three million paid off the cartels, so think of the billions and billions of dollars that were reinvested in funding the cartel‘s operations,” Morgan said. “This means that the cartels are able to fund more drone operations, dig more tunnels and further expand their vast network of criminal schemes, simply through the windfall of money they have drawn from their illegal human smuggling operation.”

Drones and IEDs

Some of the most disturbing developments related to cartel violence made headlines, including in November when nine half-naked and tortured bodies were left hanging from a bridge in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas.

More recently, the Associated Press cited the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by cartel gangs to disable Mexican army vehicles amid raging cartel violence in Michoacan state. , in southwestern Mexico. The news agency also reported increasingly violent drone attacks by cartels, including the development of bomb-carrying drones controlled by “droneros”, carrying out indiscriminate strikes that left metal barns or hangar roofs split open like tin cans from the impact.

There is a direct link between violence and rising profits and changing cartel dynamics, a change that is only accentuated by the ease with which criminal groups in Mexico have begun to import large quantities of fentanyl from Chinese suppliers in recent years.

Fentanyl, which has been blamed for soaring overdose death rates in the United States, is a synthetic opioid that is considerably more potent than opium from poppy farms. A recent national public radio program explained how Mexican cartels have increasingly imported fentanyl which is then squeezed into pills or mixed with other illegal narcotics such as heroin.

Analysts say Mexico’s drug boom may have spawned new cartel groups, groups that moved quickly to challenge older, more established cartels that have traditionally dominated the illegal opioid market. by controlling the now increasingly obsolete poppy-growing operations.

Michael Lettieri, editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project at the University of California, San Diego, played down the idea that cartels have amassed more power in recent years, but said the organized crime landscape in Mexico has clearly evolved over the last decade. .

“Things are pretty bad right now, but they’re bad enough because they’ve been bad enough, not because there’s something – at least that I can identify as a major change – that’s happened. over the past few months,” Lettieri said. said in an interview.

“The criminal landscape is different today than it was in 2010. Things are changing slowly. Groups are more fractured today than they were 10 years ago,” he said. “We should be talking less about the big organizations now and more about the smaller groups that have emerged. There is violence now in areas where there was none 10 years ago, and that is because there are new and different criminal groups operating now.

Mr Lettieri said successive US and Mexican administrations had failed to coordinate as much as necessary to truly contain the problem of organized crime – a reality that Mr Lopez Obrador and Mr Biden now face.

“Lopez Obrador’s government has not invested in civilian police reform and neither has the government of former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto,” he said. “At the same time, successive U.S. administrations have not prioritized the security relationship or adapted to changing times.”

Mr. Lettieri added that the current situation surrounding fentanyl could be an opportunity for US-Mexico cooperation. “But the United States must help make this possible,” he said. “So far, that hasn’t happened. There is a fixation on trade that dominates the bilateral relationship and there is also a fixation on Central American migration, but there is no commitment to a truly shared bilateral understanding of the issue of security.

Deterioration of links

Others say effective US-Mexico counter-cartel operations were collapsing long before Mr Biden arrived in the White House, hitting a low point after US law enforcement arrested the former Mexican Minister of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles in October 2020.

The retired Mexican army general has been accused by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of accepting bribes in exchange for protection from cartel members. US court documents claimed he was even known as “el Padrino” – “the godfather” – to members of a Mexican cartel.

But the arrest outraged Lopez Obrador’s government, which demanded Mr Cienfuegos be sent home to face trial in Mexico. US officials reluctantly agreed, but the situation escalated further when Mexico proceeded to release and fully exonerate the former general and pass a new security law to reduce considerably the DEA’s investigations inside Mexico.

“The Cienfuegos case was a major setback in law enforcement coordination between the United States and Mexico, which was already fragile to begin with,” said longtime Latin America expert and researcher Christopher Sabatini. principal at the Chatham House think tank in London.

At the same time, Mr Sabatini said that in the era of Mr Lopez Obrador’s ‘ridiculous’ hugs, not bullet politics, ‘criminal groups have become more brazen and are able to operate more effectively “.

“How do you re-engage your partner when your partner isn’t cooperating and really doesn’t have a strategy themselves? That’s the question facing the Biden administration right now.

Last month, Mexican officials hailed a 3.6% drop in the number of murders in 2020 compared to 2019, but part of that reflected COVID restrictions and the 33,308 murders last year were down slightly from compared to the all-time high of 34,690 set in 2019, a figure almost equaled in 2020.

“The reality is that Mexico is going through one of its worst periods in terms of violence,” Francisco Rivas, head of the civil society group at the National Citizen Observatory, told Agence France-Presse during the interview. the publication of the figures for 2021.

It’s a dynamic that has only fueled organized crime further, according to Mr. Morgan, who argues that “the cartels are totally emboldened – not only do they seem more powerful, they are more powerful right now.”

“The cartels had a de facto government, a shadow government, for decades and decades,” he said, adding that they have now “become more influential in terms of their strength and ability to prosecute their criminal operations”.

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