Mexican drug cartels are surging and flush with cash as the Biden administration struggles to establish a new enforcement approach along the U.S. southern border — a situation compounded by the fumbling policies of Mexico’s left-leaning government and waves of Chinese-made fentanyl flowing into the organized criminal networks in recent years.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently said that a slight drop in his country’s homicide rate shows his “hugs, not bullets” approach to violence is working.
Analysts, however, say cartel activity is soaring in Mexico and the U.S. and law enforcement coordination between the countries is dangerously low.
“What we’re seeing is a heightened level of boldness on the part of smugglers and the cartels in general, and the reason is that our borders are wide open,” said Mark A. Morgan, a longtime FBI agent who headed U.S. Border Patrol under President Obama and served as acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under President Trump.
“The cartels are emboldened and empowered right now to the extent that they feel they can act with impunity because of the lax posture of the current administration,” Mr. Morgan, now a fellow with The Heritage Foundation, told The Washington Times in an interview.
He pointed specifically to the administration’s policy on illegal immigrants. He said the number of Latin American migrants heading north has soared over the past year because of a sharp drop in deportations since Mr. Biden took office.
Cartels that control and facilitate illegal routes across the U.S. border have capitalized on the changes. “No one passes illegally through the U.S.-Mexico border without direct or tacit approval from the cartels,” Mr. Morgan said.
He said 3 million people attempted to cross illegally during the past 12 months, more than double the number from a year earlier.
“All 3 million paid the cartels, so just think about the billions and billions of dollars that have gone back into financing cartel operations,” Mr. Morgan said. “This means the cartels are able to fund more drone operations, they’re able to dig more tunnels and further expand their vast network of criminal schemes simply from the windfall of cash that they’ve gotten from their illegal human smuggling operation.”
Drones and IEDs
Some of the more disturbing developments relating to cartel violence have made headlines. News outlets reported in November that the bodies of nine half-naked and tortured people were left hanging from a bridge in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas.
More recently, The Associated Press cited cartel gangs’ use of improvised explosive devices to disable Mexican army vehicles during raging violence in the southwestern state of Michoacan.
The news agency also has reported on cartels’ increasingly violent drone attacks. Bomb-carrying drones controlled by “droneros” carry out indiscriminate strikes that have opened metal roofs of barns and sheds like tin cans.
The violence is directly linked to surging profits and shifting cartel dynamics. Criminal groups in Mexico have begun importing vast amounts of fentanyl from Chinese suppliers in recent years.
Fentanyl, blamed for soaring overdose death rates in the United States, is a synthetic opioid dramatically more potent than opium made from harvested poppies. A National Public Radio feature outlined how Mexican cartels have increasingly imported fentanyl, which is pressed into pills or mixed with other illegal narcotics such as heroin.
Analysts said the surge of fentanyl in Mexico may have given rise to more cartels. The new groups have quickly challenged established cartels, which have controlled poppy-growing operations to dominate an increasingly obsolete opioid market.
Michael Lettieri, a managing editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project at the University of California, San Diego, downplayed the notion that cartels have accumulated more power in recent years. He did say the overall organized crime landscape in Mexico has evolved over the past decade.
“Things are pretty bad right now, but they’re pretty bad because they’ve been pretty bad, not because there’s anything — at least that I can identify as a major change — that’s occurred in the past few months,” Mr. Lettieri said in an interview.
“The criminal landscape is different now than it was in 2010. Things shift slowly. Groups are more fractured now than they were 10 years ago,” he said. “We should be talking less about big organizations now and more about smaller groups that have emerged. There’s violence now in areas where there wasn’t 10 years ago, and that’s because there are new and different criminal groups operating now.”
Mr. Lettieri said successive U.S. and Mexican administrations have failed to coordinate as much as needed to contain organized crime. That reality now confronts Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr. Biden.
“Lopez Obrador’s government has not invested in civilian police reform, and the government of former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto didn’t really either,” he said. “At the same time, successive U.S. administrations haven’t prioritized the security relationship or adjusted to changing times.”
Mr. Lettieri said the fentanyl problem could pose an opportunity for U.S.-Mexican cooperation. “But the U.S. needs to help make that possible,” he said. “So far, that hasn’t happened. There’s a fixation with trade that dominates the bilateral relationship, and there’s a fixation on Central American migration as well, but there’s no commitment to a really shared bilateral understanding of the security issue.”
Others say effective U.S.-Mexican counter-cartel operations were dissolving well before Mr. Biden arrived in the White House. Cooperation hit a low point after U.S. law enforcement officials arrested former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles in October 2020.
The Drug Enforcement Administration accused the retired Mexican army general of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel members. U.S. court documents said members of one Mexican cartel knew him as “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather.”
The arrest outraged the Lopez Obrador government, which demanded that Mr. Cienfuegos be sent home to face trial in Mexico. U.S. officials grudgingly agreed, but the situation soured further when Mexico released and fully exonerated the former general and pushed through a security law to sharply curtail DEA investigations inside Mexico.
“The Cienfuegos case was a major setback in U.S.-Mexico law enforcement coordination, which was already fragile to begin with,” said Christopher Sabatini, a longtime Latin America expert and senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.
In the era of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s “ridiculous” “hugs, not bullets” policy, Mr. Sabatini said, “criminal groups have become more brazen and are able to operate more effectively.”
“How do you reengage your partner when your partner isn’t cooperating and really doesn’t have a strategy himself? That’s the question facing the Biden administration right now.”
Mexican officials last month hailed a 3.6% decline in the number of homicides in 2020 compared with 2019, but part of that reflected COVID-19 restrictions. The 33,308 homicides last year were down slightly from the all-time record of 34,690 set in 2019, a figure nearly matched in 2020.
“The reality is that Mexico is going through one of its worst times in terms of violence,” Francisco Rivas, head of the National Citizen Observatory of Security, Justice and Legality, told the Agence France-Presse news service when the 2021 numbers were released.
The dynamic has further fueled organized crime, said Mr. Morgan. “The cartels are totally emboldened — they not only appear more powerful, but they are more powerful right now,” he said.
“The cartels have had a de facto government, a shadow government, for decades and decades,” he said. They have now “become more influential with respect to their strength and ability to continue their criminal operations.”