Mexico Could Spoil New U.S.-China Fentanyl Plan
As the drug has spread, AMLO has blocked efforts to track and control it.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Mexico’s president discusses fentanyl with his Chinese counterpart, Argentina gears up for a presidential runoff election, and Cuban athletes defect to Chile.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador began a rare international trip to San Francisco on Wednesday evening for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. López Obrador met with his counterparts from China, Japan, and Canada on Thursday and is due to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden today.
López Obrador’s first-ever bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was closely watched—and not only because China and Mexico are expanding their economic relations. Mexico’s foreign secretary said before the meeting that the two leaders were also set to discuss efforts to address the fentanyl trade, a sore spot in both countries’ relations with Washington.
Doctors prescribe pharmaceutical fentanyl to treat severe pain, but drug traffickers—many in Mexico—have increasingly added strong doses of it to illegal street drugs that are used in the United States. Fentanyl overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans last year, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency chief Anne Milgram has called fentanyl “the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered.”
In response to the fentanyl crisis over the past decade, countries around the world—including China, which has a massive pharmaceutical sector—put new restrictions on the sale and shipping of fentanyl as well as the ingredients used to make it, known as precursor chemicals. But enterprising drug traffickers have found new ways to produce fentanyl with unrestricted ingredients.
Today, many of those ingredients are shipped from China to drug labs in Mexico, where they are packaged into pills that are trafficked northward into the United States. But the United States’ strained relationships with both China and Mexico have hampered anti-narcotics cooperation in recent years.
Mexico sharply reduced law enforcement cooperation with the United States after the 2020 arrest of a powerful retired Mexican general on U.S. soil. (After a major diplomatic backlash, the drug conspiracy charges against him, which were not related to fentanyl, were dropped.) Meanwhile, as Washington moved to decouple economic relations with China, Beijing rebuffed U.S. calls to increase its tracking of new fentanyl precursor chemicals. As recently as April, Beijing and Mexico City both denied any role in illegal fentanyl trafficking, blaming drug consumers in the United States for the opioid epidemic.
In recent months, the Biden administration has moved to thaw relations with Beijing—and U.S. lawmakers have called for stronger federal actions to address the fentanyl crisis. Now, it has emerged as a potential area of cooperation with China. On Wednesday, Biden and Xi agreed to resume previously frozen anti-narcotics cooperation, and China pledged to take law enforcement action against illegal precursor suppliers.
China’s readout of Xi’s meeting with López Obrador on Thursday said the countries would deepen anti-drug cooperation, and Mexico’s foreign secretary posted on X that Beijing and Mexico City would combat “the illegal trafficking of precursor chemicals to synthetic drugs.” Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the head of research at the University of California San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, told Foreign Policy that ideally, cooperation would include tracing fentanyl ingredients. That stands to benefit both Mexicans and Americans due to the prevalence of overdose deaths on both sides of the border, she said.
But López Obrador’s track record on fentanyl makes meaningful cooperation difficult for many observers to imagine. The Mexican president’s stances on drug policy are often “regressive” and deprioritize “a public health approach,” Farfán-Méndez said. López Obrador’s administration defunded a national survey on drug and alcohol use and shut down a lab that creates a medicine for people to wean themselves off of opioids. He regularly presents drug use as “a moral failing,” she added.
Those sorts of statements and actions contradict the prevailing expert consensus on how to address the opioid crisis. Because fentanyl and its precursors are easy to hide—and thus difficult to fully stamp out of international trade flows—experts have also called for so-called harm reduction techniques that include medications to help people survive overdoses.
Addressing fentanyl “supply alone is inadequate and problematic,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. “But giving up on addressing the supply is also problematic”—which is why efforts to target precursors still matter.
López Obrador’s talks with Xi on fentanyl follow other recent steps that Mexico has taken to address the drug’s supply chain in recent months, including joining a United Nations program that facilitates information-sharing about shipping containers suspected of carrying illicit goods. Still, what’s lacking is far more “meaningful information exchange,” Felbab-Brown said.
Felbab-Brown argued that the United States’ inability to secure robust anti-crime cooperation from Mexico—which has caused a heavy death toll in both countries—should prompt a broader U.S. policy rethink toward Mexico City. Currently, “the Biden administration has handled [López Obrador] with kid gloves” in part because it depends on Mexico to control northward migration.
Next year, Mexico will elect a new president, offering a potential chance for a reset both in Mexico’s drug policy and bilateral relations with the United States. But front-runner Claudia Sheinbaum is unlikely to delineate what those changes might be—as she is depending on López Obrador’s patronage to get elected.
Friday, Nov. 17: López Obrador meets with Biden.
Sunday, Nov. 19: Argentina holds a presidential runoff election.
What We’re Following
Brazil’s green bonds. On Monday, Brazil announced it had sold $2 billion in sovereign bonds whose proceeds will be earmarked for environmental and social spending. So-called “green bonds” have become increasingly common on global financial markets. Some Brazilian companies have previously sold their own sustainability-related bonds, but this was the first time the government did so as part of its sovereign debt. Around 75 percent of the buyers were in Europe and North America, while some 25 percent were in Latin America, Brazil’s National Treasury said.
With the sale, Brazil became the eighth country in Latin America to issue a bond with a sustainability label, the Financial Times reported. Counting both company and sovereign bonds together, Chile and Mexico have so far been the biggest sustainable bond issuers in the region, with each selling more than $40 billion in such bonds to date.
Brazil’s own rules for green bonds stipulate that the state will publish annual reports on what the money is used for. Some 50 to 60 percent of funds from this week’s sale are due to go to environmental conservation purposes, while 40 to 50 percent will go to social needs such as sanitation projects and affordable housing construction, according to Brazil’s Treasury.
Kenyan deliberations on Haiti. More than a month ago, the United Nations Security Council approved sending a Kenya-led multinational security force to Haiti to crack down on gangs. The United States had successfully urged Kenyan leaders to agree to leading a force that the U.S. did not want to helm. (Washington has a fraught history of intervening in Haiti.)
But so far, no boots are on the ground. That’s because the proposal has been held up by opposition leaders inside of Kenya, who claim that Kenyans were not consulted before the decision and that the country’s constitution forbids police being deployed overseas. The country’s top court also ruled against it, and Kenya’s interior minister said that U.N. member states would need to pay Kenya for its police services.
On Thursday, Kenya’s high court extended its order blocking the deployment, even as Kenya’s parliament reversed course and voted to authorize the force. A judge on the court said it would issue a final verdict on the matter on Jan. 26.
Athlete defectors. The sporting competition at this year’s Pan American Games in Chile may be over, but the politics of the event are still playing out in full force. Eight Cuban athletes who traveled to the tournament—a kind of mini-Olympics for the Western Hemisphere—have stayed behind in host country Chile and are now seeking refugee status there.
The refugee applications present a test for Chilean President Gabriel Boric, journalist Patricia Garip wrote in Foreign Policy this week. Boric, a leftist, has been vocal about his commitment to denouncing human rights abuses whether they come from left-wing or right-wing governments, and has stood out on the Latin American left for condemning authoritarianism in Venezuela. But he is less openly critical of the Cuban government.
If the Boric administration grants the athletes refugee status, “it means the state of Chile recognizes that Cuba politically persecutes these citizens or flagrantly violates their rights,” former Chilean migration agency head Álvaro Bellolio told Garip. Boric’s spokesperson said that the applications would be evaluated according to standard procedure. But by not personally commenting on the issue, Boric missed “a great opportunity to take the side of democracy,” political scientist Kenneth Bunker told Garip.
Question of the Week
When was the last time Mexican President López Obrador visited the United States?
López Obrador held a White House meeting with Joe Biden in July 2022.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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- Are Ethiopia and Eritrea on the Path to War? by Mohamed Kheir Omer
In Focus: Argentina’s Election Goes International
As Argentina’s presidential runoff vote approaches this weekend, an unusually high number of international politicians have weighed in.
The current leader of Spain and former leader of Uruguay have endorsed Economy Minister Sergio Massa from the ruling leftist Peronist coalition, while former leaders of Mexico and Colombia, among other countries, have backed libertarian Javier Milei. U.S. congresswoman María Elvira Salazar, a Republican, also posted a video expressing her support for Milei this week. Most polls show the two candidates in a tight race, with Milei leading.
The large wave of endorsements from sitting politicians abroad, particularly those in the region, is atypical. In Latin America, noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs was especially resonant in the wake of the Cold War, during which the United States and right-wing actors across the region collaborated to support military regimes in several countries.
But that’s changed in recent years, with Latin American politicians growing more vocal about elections in their neighborhood.
The endorsements ahead of this Sunday’s vote can be explained in part by the election’s potential to alter Argentina’s foreign relations. In recent decades, Argentine presidents of both the center left and center right have supported cooperation with other Latin American countries, including via membership in the South American trade bloc Mercosur. They have also been generally in favor of increasing trade with China.
Milei has vowed to rethink all of those relationships—though Argentina’s business community may try to constrain him if he is elected. Instead, the self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist has invested in a different international network of far-right, social media savvy politicians that include the Bolsonaro clan in Brazil and the Vox party in Spain. He has pledged to focus on aligning with the United States, Israel, and what he calls the “free world.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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