The United States and Mexico will soon announce an agreement to further target both the fentanyl and illicit gun supplies. It’s a classic “scratch my back” kind of deal: Mexico will commit to going after fentanyl production labs and smuggling of precursor chemicals from abroad. The US will meanwhile crack down on the illicit flow of firearms into Mexico. This follows months of negotiations, according to NBC News.
The Biden administration has repeatedly, publicly said it’s prioritizing targeting the cross-border fentanyl supply—including in Biden’s speech alongside Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in January. AMLO has emphasized his own government’s efforts to target fentanyl, but reportedly also demanded US action on the illicit firearms supply: Increasingly linked to violence in Mexico, this previously led to the Mexican government filing a lawsuit against US gun manufacturers.
Although details of the agreement aren’t yet public, NBC reports that it will involve Mexico contributing more staff and the US more money to targeting the fentanyl supply. US law enforcement like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will continue to work with Mexican authorities. Both countries will share data tracking fentanyl routes. And the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) will be charged with better monitoring guns crossing the border.
“This proposed agreement makes sense politically from both sides, but it’s essentially a farce from a policy perspective.”
On March 8, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that it was building a “non-intrusive inspection system” at the international border crossing in El Paso, Texas. It’s meant to use X-ray and other technology to detect guns, drugs and other banned items without initial vehicle searches. Over the spring and summer, CBP plans to build similar systems at border crossings in Ysleta, Santa Teresa, Fort Hancock, Tornillo and Presidio.
Supply-side drug crackdowns have a long history of failing to meet their objectives while producing further harms.
“This proposed agreement makes sense politically from both sides, but it’s essentially a farce from a policy perspective,” Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Filter. “We have decades of experience to show the proposed crackdowns on either fentanyl or guns will have no impact on the actual underlying drug or violence problems.”
Biden, he suggested, “is smart enough to know pouring more money into interdiction” will not work, but is playing to the public panic around fentanyl, when “many Americans want to believe we can really control our borders even if that’s not possible.”
Dr. Alex Krotulski, associate director at the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education and a fentanyl toxicology expert, told Filter that it’s true that fentanyl in the US is largely manufactured in Mexico, using chemicals imported from other countries. But manufacturers, as is typical under prohibition, have adapted to get around law enforcement targeting.
“They’re not ‘baking the cake’ the same way,” he said. “What they’re doing is, as the DEA has either scheduled or controlled various precursor chemicals that they’re using, the manufacturing route people have used has changed … That way they can skirt around these different controls.”
“If you could eradicate fentanyl, what is it replaced with?”
Krotulski added that even if police and military responses could drastically reduce or even eliminate the fentanyl supply, there would then be somewhat predictable new consequences, per the Iron Law of Prohibition.
“Any example of law enforcement trying to stop the production of a certain drug has almost always led to some shift or change in the supply—you can see that with heroin and the progression to fentanyl,” he said. “If you could eradicate fentanyl, what is it replaced with?”
Moreover, attempting to cut supply does nothing to address demand. “If you eradicate fentanyl, what do you do with those millions of people?” Krotulski asked. “You can’t just cut fentanyl out of their lives completely and say that’s fine, they’ll go through withdrawal and figure it out on their own—that’s not an appropriate response to it.”
As US overdose deaths have reached record highs, politicians have been eager to politicize the crisis. Over the past few months, elected Republicans like Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX) have called for a dangerous escalation of the War on Drugs in Mexico—up to having US armed forces literally invade the country. In January, Crenshaw introduced an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) calling on the military to respond to those “trafficking fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances…[and] other related activities that cause regional destabilization in the Western Hemisphere.”
A similar AUMF was approved days after 9/11 in 2001, giving a legal pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan and the War on Terror. And “terror” is now being evoked by other Republicans, like former Attorney General Bill Barr and Senator Lindsey Graham (SC), who have called on Biden to designate drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations. Graham has also vowed to introduce a bill authorizing US military force in Mexico.
“He feels a need to speak out on fentanyl and sound punitive, to protect himself from attacks from Republicans and others.”
Amid this Republican posturing, some Democrats have also taken the chance to blame Mexico’s government for fentanyl. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently stated: “[The Mexican government] is helping us, but they could do much more. There is no doubt about that.” And Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) claimed during a public hearing that the US is working with Mexico “with kid gloves,” adding, “I don’t know how many more lives have to be lost for Mexico to get engaged.”
The political narrative of an AMLO administration unable or unwilling to crack down hard enough on fentanyl has further been fueled by the recent kidnapping of four US citizens in Matamoros, in which two were murdered. And it may not have been helped by the Mexican president’s comments in March, during a visit by US officials, that “here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl.” With Republicans raging and a presidential election next year, the timing of Biden’s new move is no coincidence.
“He feels a need to speak out on fentanyl and sound punitive, to protect himself from attacks from Republicans and others,” Nadelmann said. “It’s purely political and rhetorical—I assume he knows better.”
“The real question,” he continued, “is whether any of them will be more innovative and aggressive in embracing strategies that might make a difference, such as overdose prevention sites, or looking at what British Columbia is doing with safe supply, or addressing the underlying issues.”
While US politicians want to blame Mexico for the fentanyl supply, Mexico has its own complaints abhout gun trafficking from the US. In August 2021, the Mexican government sued several major gunmakers in a US federal court in Massachusetts. Despite earning the support of multiple US states and dozens of local governments, the lawsuit was thrown out by a judge in September 2022.
In that suit, Mexico alleged that half a million weapons are smuggled from the US every year, with gun makers and dealers “actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico.” It claimed that 70 to 90 percent of guns recovered from crime scenes are traced back to the US—and even the US Government Accountability Office found evidence to support that.
Although both fentanyl and firearms are “trafficked,” they are produced and transported in very different ways. The US has a well established, sophisticated, legal gun industry that saw nearly 20 million guns sold in 2021. And the federal authority tasked with monitoring gun dealers isn’t doing its job properly. In a joint investigation, USA Today and The Trace reviewed nearly 2,000 ATF inspections between 2015-2017 and found persistent cases where gun dealers ignored regulations, lied to ATF agents and tampered with their records to conceal unlawful activity.
“This agreement suggests the ATF will be more focused on working with other law enforcement agencies in the US and Mexico to interdict guns as they cross the border—which they’re already doing, but there’s a strong need for them to collaborate and share information and develop a more comprehensive strategy,” Lindsay Nichols, policy director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told Filter. “ATF should also focus on inspecting the gun stores along the border, where too many guns are being sold that are then being used in crimes south of the border.”
“The scale of gun manufacturing in the US makes it a very attractive source for the supply of guns—along with the lack of strong regulations.”
“CBP, [the Department of Homeland Security], the Department of State all play a role in this,” she continued. “They each have access to different sets of data. In order to comprehensively address this problem, they need to share that data. When the ATF traces guns that show up in crimes in Mexico, they need to work with the state department to make sure how they use that data is in line with state department guidelines, and work with CBP to see if they can interdict the guns as they leave the country.”
“What we’ve struggled with over the past few years are ‘ghost guns,’ which are assembled from parts that are not serialized and trafficked,” she added, although “now the ATF under its new director has issued a rule and is making strong efforts” on these.
Overall, Nichols said, “the scale of gun manufacturing in the US makes it a very attractive source for the supply of guns—along with the lack of strong regulations.”
Photograph of President Joe Biden and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in January 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.