Mexico-U.S. Ties: What to Know About Migration, Fentanyl and Guns

Relations between the United States and Mexico are at a critical juncture, as top Biden administration officials press Mexico’s government to do more to blunt soaring migration and to confront drug cartels producing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has unleashed a staggering overdose crisis.

At the same time, Mexican leaders want the United States to take aggressive steps to stanch the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico, which is reeling from years of protracted bloodshed.

Tensions between the two countries have ratcheted even higher recently as Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as former President Donald J. Trump and his rivals for the G.O.P. nomination, have proposed United States military action against drug cartels in Mexico.

The strained ties around these issues obscure an economic relationship that is thriving, with Mexico having recently eclipsed China as the United States’ largest trading partner. Companies seeking to limit their economic exposure to China have steadily been relocating operations to Mexico, producing a manufacturing boom in parts of the country.

But even as economic ties are strengthening, political tensions are flaring as both Mexico and the United States prepare for presidential elections next year. Angered by Republican presidential candidates promoting the idea of bombing cartels on Mexican soil, Mexico’s government is pushing back by focusing attention on the role that U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors play in supplying cartels with firearms.

Here’s what to know about the issues that U.S. and Mexican officials discussed Thursday.

United States officials need Mexico’s help to deter a spike in illegal migration across the southern border. After a lull over the summer, arrests along the border have begun to soar, with the U.S. Border Patrol apprehending roughly 200,000 migrants in September, the highest monthly total so far this year.

Border officials and communities are overwhelmed with the tide of people fleeing violence and extreme poverty, and an increasing number of lawmakers in President Biden’s own party have criticized the White House’s strategy.

The Biden administration this week waived 26 federal laws to proceed with border wall construction in South Texas, a move that drew a prompt rebuke from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who called it a “step backward.”

The Biden administration would also like Mexico to step up enforcement near the country’s southern border with Guatemala to slow the pace of migrants approaching the U.S. border. Mexican officials said 6,000 people were crossing its southern border every day.

U.S. and Mexican officials are developing a new migration processing center in southern Mexico where migrants can apply for refugee status in the United States rather than continuing the trek north.

But Mr. López Obrador has often criticized the emphasis on slowing the flow of migration as the primary solution to the crisis, rather than addressing the reasons people leave their homelands in the first place, like violence and corruption.

Mr. López Obrador has called for the foreign ministers of 10 Latin American countries to come together soon to develop a joint aid plan aimed at addressing immigration. Just a year ago, however, he snubbed a similar summit focused on migration hosted by Mr. Biden.

U.S. officials have been increasingly outspoken over the need to get more help from Mexico to stem the flow of drugs coming north, especially as fentanyl has become a top issue among Republican presidential hopefuls.

Nearly 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses in the United States, a crisis that U.S. officials say is largely driven by chemical precursors produced in China that are then shipped to Mexico and turned into synthetic opioids that are moved over the border.

Fatal overdoses of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, have emerged as one of the leading causes of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 49. Drug overdoses are so widespread that they are contributing to a sharp decrease in life expectancy in the United States.

Todd Robinson, the State Department’s assistant secretary of the bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, is pressing Mexico’s government to target labs producing fentanyl and to deploy federal law enforcement and the military more aggressively to intercept chemicals from China used to make the drug.

Mexican officials defend the country’s counter-narcotics efforts, pointing to significant seizures of fentanyl in recent months.

Mr. López Obrador contends that American politicians are scapegoating his country for the record number of overdoses in the United States, and that it is up to American lawmakers to address the “problem of social decay.”

“These issues are used for propaganda, whether it is one party or the other,” Mr. López Obrador told reporters recently. “Politicians without principles, without ideals, dishonest, opportunistic.”

Mr. Robinson said that Mr. Lopez Obrador was not acknowledging the severity of the drug crisis in the region, having claimed on multiple occasions that fentanyl was not produced in his country.

Mexico has taken some steps to address the problem, including labeling chemicals coming from China as criminal substances and committing to work with the United States to disrupt the financing of criminal groups producing fentanyl and opioids, U.S. officials said.

The Biden administration this week sanctioned 28 people and organizations, including a China-based network involved in producing and distributing precursor materials used in fentanyl and other illegal drugs.

The Justice Department also unsealed eight indictments charging Chinese companies with producing fentanyl and methamphetamine, distribution of synthetic opioids and sales of opioids using precursor chemicals.

Last week, the United States also sanctioned members of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the largest Mexican traffickers of fentanyl to the United States.

Mexico has been pressing the Biden administration to do more to stop the smuggling of firearms and other weapons from the United States to Mexico.

While Mexico has exceptionally strict laws regulating the sale and private use of guns, many parts of the country are reeling from gun violence. In 2021, the Justice Department found that 70 percent of the firearms submitted for tracing in Mexico between 2014 and 2018 originated in the United States.

For years, Mexico has pleaded with American officials to crack down on gun smuggling at the border. Smugglers routinely enlist Americans with clean criminal records to buy several guns at a time, often from different shops, and then simply drive the weapons across the border. There were 32,223 killings in Mexico in 2022, a homicide rate of 25 per 100,000 people, compared with a U.S. homicide rate of about 7.8 per 100,000.

Mexico’s government has been waging a multiyear legal battle in federal court in Massachusetts claiming that numerous U.S. gun companies are responsible for knowingly flooding Mexico with firearms attractive to drug cartels.

After a lower court concluded that U.S. law barred Mexico from suing the gun manufacturers, which include Smith & Wesson, Colt’s Manufacturing Company and Glock, Inc., Mexico urged a U.S. appeals court over the summer to revive the $10 billion lawsuit.

While American officials say that federal agencies are focusing on targeting criminals who obtain firearms and distribute them south, they also contend that U.S. legislation provides the gun industry with broad protection. Mexico’s lawyers argue that U.S. lawbars lawsuits only over injuries that occur in the United States.

Mr. Robinson acknowledged that U.S. gun laws make it difficult to combat the stream of guns moving across the border. “The way U.S. law is written, people can purchase guns and resell them at will,” he said.

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