Top Biden administration officials have met with the Mexican president to discuss fentanyl, migration and security concerns. Their visit comes at a fraught time. The Biden administration just greenlit the construction of more border wall in Texas, amid political pressure over migration—and despite Biden’s 2020 promise to voters to not build “another foot.” Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are fighting back on Republicans’ repeated threats of military strikes against Mexican groups blamed for trafficking fentanyl into the United States.
On October 5, the US delegation—including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—met with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) and members of his cabinet.
Biden officials spoke with their Mexican counterparts about efforts to prevent fentanyl transiting through Mexico, and the importation of chemical precursors from China. Days earlier, the Biden administration had announced indictments and sanctions against eight Chinese companies blamed for this.
US officials were expected to demand that Mexico take more police action to shut down fentanyl labs and seize chemical shipments coming from abroad.
Blinken praised the US-Mexico trade relationship in a statement, and said the two countries must “preserve the connections, the bonds that tie us together.” He also stated that the US government must take action about the “influx of guns coming from the United States to Mexico. We have a responsibility to help them do something about that.”
Maritza Perez Medina, director of federal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, believes the US will agree to take some action on the cross-border gun trade. “The Biden administration is asking so much of Mexico on drug policy and immigration, I think that would be fair,” she told Filter. “I expect we’ll see something around that.”
US media are sure to play up the tense relationship between Presidents Biden and AMLO, and will likely depict the Mexican president as unconcerned about the fentanyl trade, referencing his comments from earlier this year. In March, AMLO stated: “Here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl. Why don’t [the United States] take care of their problem of social decay?”
“AMLO tries to essentially blame the US for demand … I don’t think it’s fair to imply it’s a uniquely US issue.”
But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Mexico’s drug war continues. AMLO’s government has promised to crack down on fentanyl traffickers, arresting alleged leaders of trafficking organizations and reportedly approaching China and South Korea for joint agreements to target fentanyl.
“AMLO continues to say that the drug problem is a uniquely US issue, that in Mexico people aren’t ‘abusing’ drugs, which is just clearly not true,” Perez Medina said. “We know people struggle with substance use disorder everywhere, including in Mexico. I think his rhetoric on drugs is interesting, he tries to essentially blame the US for demand … I don’t think it’s fair to imply it’s a uniquely US issue.”
Both the US and Mexico are set to continue prioritizing supply, by targeting trafficking groups, rather than safety, by regulating drugs and investing in harm reduction.
Customs and Border Protection data show that authorities are seizing ever more fentanyl, with seizures up over 433 percent since fiscal year 2020—even as seizures of other drugs have dropped. Yet devastating overdose death tolls, primarily involving fentanyl, continue year after year, surpassing 100,000 US fatalities in 2022.
Migration and the Border
The delegations also discussed the issue of migrants and asylum-seekers entering the US from Mexico, although a majority originate from other countries in Latin American and beyond.
Fiscal year 2023 (October 2022-September 2023), is on track to see record reported encounters on the US-Mexico border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. It would mark the fourth year in a row of record border encounters. The large increases have primarily been driven by single adults crossing the border, and to a lesser extent by family units. This migration to the US is heavily linked to poverty, violence and political instability in countries of origin—problems that US foreign policy often exacerbates or directly causes.
Political pressure has mounted on Biden, and not just from Republicans. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams (D) has criticized a large increase in asylum-seekers and is trying to repeal the city’s legal obligation to find shelter for all. On October 1, a top Adams staffer called on the White House to “close the borders,” prompting Brooklyn City Councilmember Shahana Hanif to describe the remarks as “xenophobic.” Adams is now making his own tour through Latin American countries to talk with leaders about migration.
“As the US gets closer to an election year, I think we’ll see President Biden unfortunately take an even more aggressive stance against ‘illegal immigration’ because of the pushback we’re seeing.”
As the latest talks began, the Biden administration announced that it would resume deporting migrants from Venezuela, the largest country-of-origin demographic encountered at the border in September.
AMLO has told the US delegation that he is calling on their government to support investment and development in migrants’ countries of origin. “The people don’t abandon their towns because they want to, but rather out of necessity,” he said in an October 5 press briefing.
“Both countries have an interest to come up with a mechanism to deter people from making the trek, and have had to take really harsh positions on ‘illegal immigration’ for that reason,” Perez Medina said. “One area where they differ is as the US gets closer to an election year, I think we’ll see President Biden unfortunately take an even more aggressive stance against ‘illegal immigration’ because of the pushback we’re seeing across the country, with migrants being bused to different cities and being unhoused. That’s being blamed largely on Democrats in the media.”
Biden has now caved to the pressure by approving new border wall construction, waiving 26 federal laws by executive order to do so. Customs and Border Protection will be building a 20-mile wall in Starr County, Texas, where high numbers of crossings are reported. Ironically, Biden is using funding allocated under President Donald Trump to do this—having campaigned against Trump’s infamously racist pledge to “build a wall.”
Biden’s decision has drawn widespread condemnation, including from Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), and from Indigenous, environmental and human rights groups. Meanwhile Trump has seized on it to declare, “I was right.”
Republicans’ Invasion Threats
Despite a rocky relationship, the Biden administration has sought to cooperate or at least speak with the Mexican government about shared concerns, however counterproductive the shared approaches.
Republican lawmakers have meanwhile hatched another kind of plan altogether: that the US should invade Mexico to go after trafficking organizations. House Republicans have been threatening such actions for months now, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) recently promising to draft a declaration of war against trafficking groups in Mexico. According to The New York Times, “nearly every Republican candidate [for US President in 2024] has been advocating versions of a plan” to send special forces into Mexican territory to hunt down alleged traffickers and blow up their facilities.
International law would consider such actions a violation of Mexican sovereignty. Republicans know this, but talking tough about “the cartels” is an easy way to get voters’ attention.
“War with Mexico would cause devastating loss of life and would be disastrous for millions of Mexicans and Americans living in Mexico, as well as those in the US.”
Democrats in Congress are now fighting back. Rep. Joaquin Castro (TX), who is Mexican-American and represents parts of San Antonio, is planning to file a resolution committing Washington to respect Mexico’s sovereignty and not take any unilateral military action.
“War with Mexico would cause devastating loss of life and would be disastrous for millions of Mexicans and Americans living in Mexico, as well as those in the US whose livelihoods depend on legitimate cross-border trade,” Castro said.
As a resolution, this measure would have only symbolic value, rather than being legally binding. But even setting aside the possibility of US military strikes in Mexico, the two countries have enormous interconnected problems—and seemingly little idea of how to effectively resolve them.
Photograph of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Mexico Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alicia Isabel Adriana Bárcena Ibarra via Facebook
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.