Editorial: Mexican President López Obrador’s big lie: ‘We do not produce fentanyl’

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America voted out of office its mendacious president in 2020. But across the border, Mexico grapples with its own delusional leader, who recently barked out a whopper of an untruth.

Meeting with White House Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador earlier this month insisted that his nation doesn’t produce fentanyl, the synthetic opioid blamed for the deaths of more than 70,000 Americans in 2021.

“Here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl,” the Mexican leader said. “Why don’t they (the U.S.) take care of their problem of social decay?”

As lies go, López Obrador’s remark ranks up there with Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have turned fentanyl production into one of their biggest moneymakers. A 2021 raid by the Mexican army on a lab in Culiacan, the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, revealed an operation producing tens of millions of fentanyl pills monthly for the Sinaloa cartel.

Sinaloa, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and other cartel groups have been flooding the border with shipments of fentanyl. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 379 million doses of fentanyl, but it’s clear that a sizable portion of what the cartels smuggle makes it over the border and into U.S. cities and towns.

Perhaps López Obrador’s lies are a way of deflecting attention from the failure of his “hugs, not bullets” approach toward combating the cartels. After his election in 2018, López Obrador promised Mexicans that he could eradicate the cartels by eradicating poverty. He put in place a series of social programs aimed at lifting up his country’s impoverished masses, with the hope of wiping out the root causes of cartel violence.

The policy hasn’t worked at all, and the cartels have flourished largely unchecked. Every year, cartel violence claims the lives of thousands of Mexicans, many of them students, politicians and journalists. Under López Obrador, Mexico’s murder rate remains at near-record levels. The number of cartel drug labs under López Obrador has also soared.

At times, cartel violence has led to the deaths of Americans. Mexican authorities are still investigating what role a Mexican drug cartel may have played in the March 3 kidnapping of four Americans, and the deaths of two of those Americans, in the northern city of Matamoros. In 2019, nine members of a Mormon family with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship were killed during a brutal ambush on their three sport utility vehicles in northern Mexico. Six of the dead were children, and a local drug cartel boss was later arrested in connection with the ambush.

In the U.S., fentanyl kills more Americans than traffic accidents and gun violence combined. Much of the fentanyl consumed in America comes in the form of fake pills crafted to look like everyday prescription drugs such as Xanax and OxyContin. The man-made opioid is the country’s deadliest drug threat, with a potency 50 times higher than heroin.

The Biden administration says it’s been pushing López Obrador to crack down much harder on the cartels, but clearly the message isn’t getting through. Of course, threatening rhetoric from GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina hasn’t helped. Graham on March 5 said he would like “to unleash the fury and might of the U.S. against these cartels,” adding that the U.S. could send its troops into Mexico “to destroy drug labs that are poisoning Americans.”

That’s not a solution, and it’s only going to give López Obrador an excuse to avoid cooperating with the U.S. in the fight against the cartels. Mexico Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard called Graham’s remarks “catastrophic for bilateral anti-drug cooperation.”

If López Obrador can set aside Graham’s breathless threats, and he should, he’ll see that he has ample incentive to cooperate with Washington’s request for a Mexican-led clampdown on the cartels.

First, though he cannot legally seek another term, López Obrador likely wants to secure his legacy through the election of a loyalist successor in 2024. Maintaining antagonistic ties with the Biden administration won’t help that cause, since the U.S. wields considerable economic and political influence in Mexico. The last thing López Obrador wants is for the Biden administration to put its clout behind an opposition candidate.

Beyond that, López Obrador can help himself and his country by finally realizing that treating the cartels with kid gloves only gives the drug lords license to ratchet up production — and mayhem. Mexico isn’t a failed state just yet, but that’s its trajectory unless it dramatically toughens up its treatment of the cartels.

We don’t expect López Obrador to suddenly mend his ways and become a paragon of truth-telling. But his denial about fentanyl production in Mexico makes it doubly harder for the U.S. and his country to collaborate on eradicating the cartels. Maybe López Obrador is trying to save face by peddlingyet more of his lies, but he certainly isn’t saving lives.

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