By Evan Perez, Kylie Atwood and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
Nearly a year after the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested a Mexican former defense minister and charged him with being a drug cartel boss, the Biden administration is deploying three Cabinet members and White House officials to Mexico to mend ties that are crucial for grappling with cross-border flows of migrants and drug and gun trafficking.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland will visit Mexico later this week for what the White House bills as the first US-Mexico High-Level Security Dialogue, an indication of the priority the Biden administration is placing on restoring security cooperation, after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling.
President Joe Biden, who took office promising allies that “America is back” after four years of tensions with the previous administration, has faced headwinds with some of the US’s closest friends amid a series of crises. These include the clumsy coordination with allies on the Afghanistan troop withdrawal and the recent US deal with Britain to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which prompted protests by France.
With the Mexico relationship, the Biden administration is eager for help to resolve crises that are closely tied to US domestic politics: the surge of tens of thousands of migrants at the US southern border, and the Mexican drug cartels’ move to flood the US with fake prescription medications laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is fueling a historic number of drug overdoses on American streets.
“A concern I have is that with everything that’s going on Afghanistan, now this diplomatic snafu — if we can call it that — with the French, and an administration that clearly is recalibrating policy towards China, is that the danger, the pervasive danger of Mexico being taken for granted,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the US. “And of not enough strategic bandwidth dedicated to one relationship, which plays a critically important role for the well-being and security of the United States, which is the relationship with Mexico.”
Over the summer Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and said she strongly believes the US and Mexico are “embarking on a new era,” which makes clear the interdependence and interconnectedness between the countries. The vice president’s visit didn’t produce the anticipated thaw in relations.
The tensions at least partially are blamed on a years-long DEA operation that led to the arrest last October of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018, while he was on vacation with his family in Los Angeles.
The Mexican government’s anger at how the arrest was handled, with no notice to Mexican authorities, exposed a long undercurrent of resentment over how the US approached the relationship. In Mexico, there’s widespread irritation that the US largely focuses the security collaboration on migration and drugs going north and not on the endemic violence Mexican citizens suffer because of the flow of illegal guns from the US.
Mexico retaliated by largely suspending DEA operations in the country and US officials say Mexican authorities threatened to pull back from migration agreements that the Trump administration viewed as key to stemming border crossings.
Then-Attorney General William Barr quickly called Mexican authorities to say that he himself was surprised at the Cienfuegos arrest and promised to return the general to Mexico, according to people briefed on the discussions. A month later, the Justice Department dropped charges against Cienfuegos and sent him home. Some Trump administration officials worried that Mexican authorities would allow a flood of migrants amid the US presidential election campaign. Inside the Justice Department, top officials viewed the Cienfuegos case as not worth the disruption to ties with Mexico. Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard later said he spoke to Barr following Cienfuegos’ arrest and expressed Mexico’s “discontent.”
“We have an alliance against organized crime and it was not, for us, the government of Mexico, understandable that being allies we would not be notified,” Erbard told reporters.
But despite the return of Cienfuegos, there was no return to normal.
The change of administrations in the US added new complications: With Donald Trump gone, so were threats that the former President had regularly made to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. Those threats, which the Mexican government feared would lead to upheaval between the two countries, had prompted Mexico to extradite dozens of cartel suspects wanted on charges by the US Justice Department, former and current US officials say. While the designation threat was never treated seriously by US government officials, the threats worked and Barr was able to secure Mexican help against cartel operatives.
Biden administration officials took office to find no such leverage with Mexico.
Extraditions have stopped, US officials say. And Mexico has not approved any visas for DEA agents this year, officials added. Normally the process to obtain visas takes about a month, but many of these DEA agents have been waiting for upward of six months, the sources said.
“The security and law enforcement collaboration has been scaled back to levels that we hadn’t seen since probably the first half of the first decade of the century,” Sarukhan said. “If the security relationship continues creating noise and friction points, it could wreak havoc and contaminate the bilateral relationship as a whole.”
A State Department spokesperson said, “Mexico remains a critical US security partner and we are committed to working with the Lopez Obrador administration to advance shared priorities, strengthen Mexico’s ability to fight corruption and impunity, and implement more effective strategies to dismantle transnational organized crime, including through operational law enforcement cooperation in Mexico.”
Hindering DEA operations
The DEA is still unable to conduct most operations in Mexico, and the issue has been discussed in talks between senior officials of the two countries in recent months, US officials said.
Even though the DEA has extended the stays of some agents who were already in the country, the visa issue is affecting almost two dozen agents, US officials said, and is hampering the work with informants, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
In the wake of the Cienfuegos operation, Mexican authorities acknowledged they had long wanted to revisit the broad discretion they had allowed the DEA for operations in their country. Because of US concerns about widespread corruption problems in Mexico, the DEA works with specially vetted Mexican security and law enforcement units, which limits the Mexican government’s visibility on sensitive intelligence and operations the US agency is seeking to carry out.
The challenges and distrust in the arrangement were made clear in 2014, when Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Sinaloa cartel leader and one of the US’s most-wanted drug traffickers, was arrested by Mexican authorities with the help of the DEA, only to escape a year later from Mexico’s high security prison. In 2016, the US provided intelligence and other help to a specially vetted force of Mexican marines to re-arrest Guzman. This time, he was extradited to the US, where he was convicted and is now serving a life sentence.
But Mexico’s refusal to grant visas for the DEA agents is one of the small but significant irritants to the relationship right now, which is contributing to a decay in the security relationship between the bordering countries.
The Biden administration has struggled to contain new crises for which Mexican help is crucial: a spiraling migrant crisis on the southern border and a burgeoning trade by Mexican cartels flooding the US with fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl, which US authorities say is fueling overdose deaths.
The Biden administration, like those before it, is in part relying on Mexico to tackle the flow of migrants to the US border and officials are expected to discuss Mexico’s immigration enforcement during this week’s visit, according to an administration official.
The pace at which migrants, primarily Haitians, arrived at the US southern border last month caught the Biden administration by surprise. The migrants primarily moved by bus, cutting down travel time, and appeared to easily move through Mexico, according to a Customs and Border Protection official.
Mexico later stepped up enforcement on migrants journeying through the country, stopping dozens of buses of Haitians moving toward the US border after thousands massed under the Del Rio International Bridge. A Department of Homeland Security official told reporters the US is “working closely” with the government of Mexico to try to enhance visibility into organized movements of migrants.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with Mexico Ambassador Esteban Moctezuma Barragán to discuss linked priorities, including migration. “Lack of economic opportunity is a root cause of irregular migration; (USAID) is proud to partner with the Mexican people to achieve sustainable, long-term development goals,” Power said in a tweet.
Also looming over US-Mexico discussions is a lower court ruling ordering the Biden administration to revive a Trump-era border policy that forces migrants to stay in Mexico until their US immigration court date — and as a result requires some buy-in from Mexico. During the Trump years, that policy resulted in thousands of people setting up camp along Mexico’s northern border, often waiting in squalid conditions.
Within the administration, there’s been a heightened sense of urgency about the so-called “remain in Mexico” policy amid ongoing litigation over a public health authority allowing the expulsion of migrants, according to a source familiar with discussions. Last week, DHS said it’s engaged in “high-level diplomatic discussions” with Mexico about restarting the policy, while saying it planned to reissue a memo terminating the program.
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