Secretary of State Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary Kelly meet their Mexican counterparts on May 18 to discuss the fight against organized crime and drug smuggling. This is a positive sign in a relationship that has been shaken by U.S. criticisms this year. Both countries need good—and better—cooperation against drugs and cartels. The United States is suffering an epidemic of opioid overdoses fueled by the abuse of prescription drugs and heroin and synthetic opioids smuggled from Mexico. Mexico is suffering a surge in homicides fueled in part by the criminal gangs that feed U.S. drug demand and reap billions of dollars in profits.
Mexico and the United States have improved cooperation. However, that progress has not been sufficient to stem the smuggling of deadly drugs or the drug-related violence in Mexico. More progress will require higher levels of trust, commitment and investment by the two governments, and creative thinking to find better ways to address illegal drug use and flows.
Launching a reinvigorated effort against international criminal groups will also depend on the state of U.S.-Mexico relations and, specifically, if the governments find a way to work for mutually acceptable outcomes on two other important topics: trade (NAFTA) and migration. It is hard to imagine that the two governments can forge the confidence needed to reach a new level of collaboration against criminal networks without bilateral relations moving beyond the recent high-profile tensions. Mexican domestic politics, for one, won’t allow it.
U.S.-Mexican cooperation in fighting criminal groups and drug smuggling has improved markedly since the creation of the Merida Initiative in 2008. This bilateral program aims to disrupt the operational capacity of organized crime, to support rule of law improvements, to create a twenty-first century border—and to help Mexican communities wracked by criminal violence. The United States has appropriated some $2.6 billion for Merida Initiative programs, while Mexico has spent over ten times that amount in efforts to improve law enforcement and justice performance.
Many drug kingpins have been killed or captured. Mexican law enforcement, military and intelligence capacities have improved. U.S.-Mexico law enforcement, justice, intelligence and related cooperation is arguably the best it has ever been. Still, drug cartels have split into smaller—and often more violent—groups, which continue to supply the U.S. drug market, increasingly with heroin and synthetic opioids. Criminal groups have also turned to other activities from extortion to fuel theft, further damaging Mexican communities.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised hopes for renewed U.S.-Mexico engagement, announcing that senior Mexican officials would come to…