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Fentanyl crisis highlights problems on both sides of U.S.-Mexico border

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As both U.S. and Mexico leaders pledge to work together in the fight against fentanyl, they face an uphill battle to stop what decades of presidents, politicians and policy campaigns on both sides of the border have failed to quell: Americans’ appetite for drugs and Mexico’s ability to supply it.

While the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S. has been exasperated by President Joe Biden’s border policies, Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to work together to address the fentanyl problem during a meeting in November. López Obrador had previously said fentanyl was not a Mexican problem. After the November meeting, López Obrador said Mexico was “committed to continue helping to prevent the entry of chemicals and fentanyl” into the U.S., Reuters reported.

American opiod overdose deaths and poisonings – including from fenanyl – soared in 2021, the last full year in which statistics are available, to 80,441 from 68.630 in 2020, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Nearly 90% of U.S. voters told pollsters in The Center Square Voters’ Voice Poll in August that they are concerned about fentanyl trafficking and the rising number of deaths the opioid has caused.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this month stressed the importance of cooperation with Mexico in the fentanyl fight during her visit to Mexico City.

Both of those meetings came months after the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly told its members in June to stop the production and trafficking of illicit fentanyl in the face of growing pressure from U.S. law enforcement agencies. The Wall Street Journal reported the order came from the “Chapitos,” the group led by the four sons of imprisoned boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The message was “stop or die,” the Journal reported. U.S. officials were skeptical about the cartel’s fentanyl ban.

U.S. officials have said Mexican cartels provide most of the opioids, including fentanyl, that come to the U.S. The cartels are supplied with precursor chemicals from China. Biden also met with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China in November and “announced the resumption of bilateral cooperation on counternarcotics, with a focus on reducing the flow of precursor chemicals fueling illicit fentanyl and synthetic drug trafficking,” according to the White House.

Two cooperative agreements between the U.S. and Mexico have guided most of the joint work. The Mérida Initiative, from 2008 to 2021, and then Bicentennial Framework, from late 2021 to the present.

Despite the meetings and pledges by officials from the U.S., Mexico and China, skepticism remains. Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said a significant reduction in opioid trafficking remains a challenge.

“I’ve never seen it get better at all, no matter what you try. The Mérida Initiative in 2008, previous efforts at collaborating that were more improvised, and then the Bicentennial framework, which replaced the Mérida Initiative in 2021, and no results,” Payan told The Center Square. “So drugs seem to obey their own logic. It has nothing to do with government efforts. The approach by the U.S. is wrong and certainly no approach by Mexico is also wrong.”

Payan said it would take a radical change to the approach of both countries looking at both supply and demand for drugs. He said López Obrador has been part of the problem.

“The thing about Mexico at this point is that we have an administration that is so indolent to pain and suffering on both sides of the border, because fentanyl is not just killing Americans. It’s also killing [people in] Mexico,” he said. “So this administration, the López Obrador administration is indolent and uncaring, unconcerned, completely oblivious to the pain and suffering of so many people on both sides.”

Both the U.S. and Mexico have presidential elections in 2024. In the U.S., Biden will seek another four-year term. Former U.S. President Donald Trump holds significant leads in the polls for the GOP nomination to challenge Biden in the November 2024 presidential election. In Mexico, voters will pick a new leader in June 2024. López Obrador can’t seek re-election. The upcoming leadership changes could mean not much happens on the fentanyl front in the meantime, Payan said.

“So to me, 2024 is going to be a wasteland in terms of cooperation between the two countries on almost any issue,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until 2025 past the U.S. inauguration … when you’ll have to see if they can come up with any framework.”

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