Three weeks before the midterm elections, President Biden spoke with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador about immigration and deepening cooperation to combat the trafficking of fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. Two and half years into an administration, but better late than never. According to the CDC, 107,000Americans overdosed in 2021. 70,000 of those died from synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl, an increase of over 55% from 2020. Overdoses now constitute the number one cause of death for Americans ages 18-45, and drug abuse has been a main driver of the decrease in the average American life span. While most deaths in 2021 were adults, the fastest growing demographic of people dying from fentanyl overdoes are teenagers, whose death rates have doubled over the last two years. Many of these deaths are triggered by fentanyl being increasingly pressed into counterfeit pills, 42% of which contain a potentially lethal dose.
There are both supply and demand factors at play, necessitating a strategy that tackles both. As a matter of foreign policy and national security, the vast majority of fentanyl enters the United States from Mexico, making security cooperation with Mexico to address the supply side of this crisis a central component of our success in combatting drug overdoses.
The Biden Administration is Yet to Step Up on Mexico
While the Biden administration has renamed the Merida Initiative—now called the Bicentennial Framework—it seems to have made little substantive change to the security cooperation framework with Mexico from the U.S. side. Congress allocated $133 million for the Merida Initiative in FY2020 under the Trump administration. After devising the Bicentennial Framework, the Biden administration requested $117 million in assistance to Mexico in FY2022, which Congress upped to $159 million—matching its FY2021 allotment. At the same time, despite announcing a National Drug Control Strategy that highlighted the need to hit drug traffickers where it hurts—“their wallets”—the Biden administration’s open border policy has helped put $13 billion into the hands of cartels from human trafficking alone, an increase of 2,500% over 2018.
Finally, the Biden administration’s long-delayed and recently released National Security Strategy (NSS) fails demonstrably to take fentanyl seriously and to present a plan to combat it as a threat to American national security. The NSS contains a whole section related to the threat of international terrorism, but only mentions the threat of fentanyl in passing, almost as an afterthought. According to data accumulated since 1995, and including the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, 3,905 Americans have died in the United States due to terrorism, the vast majority of whom were killed on one day, 9/11. Compare that to 70,000 Americans who died last year from fentanyl, and the over one million Americans who have died from drug overdoses since 1999. The Biden administration’s response to the threat of fentanyl is fundamentally unserious and out of touch with the challenges faced by American families.
What to Do
In order to reverse the current dynamic in the U.S.-Mexico relationship and to begin to tackle the challenge of fentanyl in the serious way it deserves, the Forum for American Leadership Latin America Working Group recommends the following immediate step to begin to address the supply side of the fentanyl problem.
1. Secure the border: The open border between the United States and Mexico directly empowers cartels. In 2018, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen testified that cartels made a total of $500 million smuggling illegal immigrants into America. In 2022, that number soared to over $13 billion. The U.S. must enforce our own laws and stem the flow of people across the border. Existing U.S. laws must be enforced, and border barriers should be completed where necessary to stem the flow of migrants and drug trafficking. Further, the Biden administration has given AMLO leverage by outsourcing border enforcement to Mexico. This has to stop so that the U.S. has leverage that can be used in other areas of the relationship.
2. Actually Address the Fentanyl Crisis: The administration needs to be forced to come up with a multifaceted plan to deal with fentanyl. The plan should combine several elements, including those related to supply:
3. Take Congressional action: There are multiple avenues through which Congress can establish oversight mechanisms and correct the direction of U.S. policy in addressing the fentanyl crisis and the Biden administration’s policy shortcomings, including:
This paper is a product of the Forum for American Leadership’s Latin America Working Group.
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