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 own left-leaning government and waves of Chinese-made fentanyl flowing into the organized criminal networks in recent years.
Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador recently claimed 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 soaring in Mexico and the U.S., with law enforcement coordination between the two at a dangerous low point.
“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,” argues Mark A. Morgan, a former long-time 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, asserting that the number heading north has soared over the past year as migrants have been drawn by a sharp drop in deportations since Mr. Biden’s took office.
Cartels that control and facilitate illegal passage routes across the U.S. border have also capitalized on the changed landscape. “No one passes illegally through the U.S.-Mexico border without direct or tacit approval from the cartels,” said Mr. Morgan, who asserts that some three million people attempted to illegally cross during the past 12 months, more than double the number from a year prior.
“All three 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, 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 the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan. The news agency has also reported on increasingly violent drone attacks by cartels, including the development of bomb-carrying drones controlled by “droneros,” carrying out indiscriminate strikes that have left metal barn or shed roofs opened like tin cans from the impact.
There is a direct link between the violence and the surging profits and shifting cartel dynamics, a shift that is only accentuated by the ease with which criminal groups in Mexico have begun importing vast amounts 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 dramatically more powerful than opium from poppy farms. A recent National Public Radio feature outlined how Mexican cartels have increasingly imported fentanyl that is then pressed into pills or mixed with other illegal narcotics such as heroin.
Analysts say the drug’s surge in Mexico may have given rise to new cartel groups, groups that have moved quickly to challenge older and more established cartels that have traditionally dominated the illegal opioid market by controlling the now increasingly obsolete poppy-growing operations.
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, but said the organized crime landscape in Mexico overall has clearly 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 truly contain the organized crime problem — a reality that 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. administration’s haven’t prioritized the security relationship or adjusted to changing times.”
Mr. Lettieri added that the current situation surrounding fentanyl could be an opportunity for U.S.-Mexico 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 that effective U.S.-Mexico counter-cartel operations were melting down well before Mr. Biden arrived in the White House, hitting a low point after U.S. law enforcement officials arrested former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles in October 2020.
The retired Mexican army general was accused by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel members. U.S. court documents claimed he was even known as ‘el Padrino’ — ‘the Godfather’ — by the members of one Mexican cartel.
But 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, only to have the situation sour further when Mexico proceeded to release and fully exonerate the former general and pushing through a new 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.
At the same time, Mr. Sabatini said, in the era of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s “ridiculous” hugs, not bullets policy, “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 himself? That’s the question facing the Biden administration right now.”
Mexican officials last month hailed a 3.6% decline 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 just 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 civil society group, told the Agence France-Presse news service when the 2021 numbers were released.
It’s a dynamic that has only further fueled organized crime, according Mr. Morgan, who argues that “the cartels are totally emboldened — they not only appear more powerful but they are more powerful right now.”
“The cartels have had a de facto government, a shadow government, for decades and decades,” he said, adding that they have now “become more influential with respect to their strength and ability to continue their criminal operations.”