WASHINGTON (Circa) — Combating the international drug trafficking networks that are fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic was among the top items on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's agenda when he met with the current and future presidents of Mexico on Friday.
"These brutal outlaws are responsible for spreading violence and undermining law and order in both countries and must be stopped," Pompeo told reporters following his meeting with members of the current Mexican administration.
He stressed the continued U.S. commitment to work with Mexico to stop the illegal flow of drugs, weapons and people in both directions across the shared border.
Joint efforts to combat the drug cartels has been a cornerstone of the U.S.-Mexico relationship for more than a decade. Addressing that problem has become increasingly important as Mexico faces record-high drug violence and the United States grapples with the effects of a thriving cross-border drug trade, which is feeding the opioid epidemic.
However, it is not clear whether the two countries can advance a shared security agenda, as Mexico appears to be heading in a new direction under President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
AMLO'S SECURITY AGENDA
Lopez Obrador, better known by his initials AMLO, won the election on a populist, anti-establishment platform, promising massive government investments in the people and economy of Mexico and changing what he called the failed US-Mexico drug war.
The leftist politician was elected against the backdrop of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, that was plagued by corruption scandals and a nationwide increase in crime and violence.
Over the past three years, Mexico has seen a dramatic rise in violent crime, largely related to drugs. According to government data, murders reached recent historic highs with 29,168 people killed in 2017.
The drug trade and poor governance has left 40 percent of the country "paralyzed with insecurity," Lopez Obrador's future chief of staff, Alfonso Romo told Unomásuno news this week. He vowed the incoming government would be focused on implementing the "rule of law" reducing violence.
So far, AMLO has provided few details about how he and his administration intend to accomplish those goals and whether the United States will be part of the solution.
For example, Lopez Obrador campaigned under the slogan "Abrazos, no balazos" ("Hugs, not bullets"), calling for more leniency for drug crimes and even amnesty for certain lower-level criminals. "You can’t fight fire with fire," the incoming president repeated.
In his July 1 victory speech, Lopez Obrador told supporters, "The failed strategy of combating insecurity and violence will change" and promised economic opportunities to counter the appeal of the illicit drug trade.
More recently, the incoming head of public security, Alfonso Durazo proposed a northern and southern border force to address the flows of people, weapons and drugs in both directions. The new units would likely replace military and police forces.
The proposal, though slim on details, seems to be part of the new government's efforts to overturn the strategy put in place in by U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Under the 2006 Merida Initiative, the United States provided Mexico billions of dollars in aid largely focused on Mexican military and security efforts to eradicate the country's narco-criminal syndicates.
The approach worked to take out a number of top drug kingpins but came at the cost of roughly 200,000 murders since 2006. In addition, Mexico's armed forces have been deemed responsible for thousands of disappearances and scores of human rights violations.
WILL TRUMP AND AMLO WORK TOGETHER?
"There's some concern about whether the cooperation is going to be effective," said John Walters, the drug czar under George W. Bush who helped enact the U.S.-Mexico counter-narcotics strategy.
AMLO's victory came in part because of the unpopularity of Mexico's bloody drug war and his promise not to perpetuate the violence.
If that translates into a policy where narco-criminal organizations are allowed to thrive, "you're going to have a state that begins to move toward failure," Walters warned.
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the Baker Institute, also raised concerns that the new Mexican president could take a lax approach to security with significant consequences for the United States and its own drug problem.
"Mexico is an indispensable partner in stopping illegal drugs from South and Central America," he wrote. "If Obrador ends Mexico's efforts against drug cartels, as his collaborators’ initiative 'Security without War' promises, this could result in a surge of illegal drugs into the United States."
The political dimensions could also pose a challenge.
U.S.-Mexico political relations have been strained under President Trump and both leaders have largely inward-looking nationalist agendas focused on their countries first.
AMLO has also been critical of Trump, his immigration agenda and proposed border wall, calling him "erratic and arrogant." He also vowed to be tougher with the U.S. president than Peña Nieto, at one point telling supporters that "will not be the piñata of any foreign government."
Despite the differences, Walters believes the strategic reasons for cooperation are so compelling that the two leaders will have to make the relationship work.
"I think we're at a critical point," he explained. "Both of us have fundamental interests that are only going to be met properly by working together."
For the United States, that means stopping the flow of drugs across the southern border, where roughly 90 percent of heroin consumed in the country enters. For Mexico, Walter said, "it means stopping the complete subversion of the political establishment and law and order" by increasingly powerful drug trafficking organizations.
Pompeo is expected to address the U.S. the commitment to counter-narcotic cooperation during his visit with Lopez Obrador. That includes President Trump's efforts to reduce U.S. demand for drugs with domestic opioid treatment programs. Pompeo will all raise the contentious topics of immigration, border security and trade.
President Trump spoke briefly with President-elect Lopez Obrador earlier this month to congratulate him on his victory. According to the State Department, Trump does not yet have plans to formally meet the new Mexican leader who takes office on December 1.