'Getting to the kingpins': Guns and drugs on agenda for Joe Biden, Mexico's AMLO

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States
  • Andrés Manuel López Obrador
    Andrés Manuel López Obrador
    President of Mexico

MEXICO CITY — As three North American leaders meet in Washington on Thursday, security issues are expected to be high on the agenda – at a time when cross-border cooperation between the United States and Mexico shows signs of strain.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants action to stop the smuggling of weapons into Mexico, where U.S. guns equip drug cartels and fuel violence. The United States, meanwhile, wants Mexico to further crackdown on cartels shipping drugs like fentanyl – as deaths from opioid overdoses surge in the United States. U.S. security officials also are seeking continued Mexican cooperation in stopping migrants transiting Mexican territory.

The meeting of President Joe Biden, López Obrador, known as AMLO, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offers an international stage for the U.S. and Mexico to hash out ways to solve their interconnected problems amid shifting dynamics, experts said.

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“You have a complex playing field in which the U.S. side is still keen on carrying out traditional law enforcement objectives like dismantling cartels, getting to the kingpins and acting as they have been. But on the Mexican side you’re seeing resistance to this sort of thinking,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“There’s a clash of paradigms right now,” Ernst said, pointing to López Obrador’s professed security strategy of “hugs, not bullets,” even though he’s increasingly turned to the military for public safety tasks. “The U.S. is also in a situation where the Mexican side has gained a lot of leverage in negotiations, including with the migration issue.”

Armed men who claim to be members of a “self-defense” squad patrol the limits of Taixtan, in the Michoacan state of Mexico, Oct. 28, 2021. The army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here.
Armed men who claim to be members of a “self-defense” squad patrol the limits of Taixtan, in the Michoacan state of Mexico, Oct. 28, 2021. The army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here.

The U.S. is trying to reach an arrangement with Mexico on reinstating the Remain in Mexico program, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexican border cities while their cases are heard in U.S. courts. The U.S. is also managing the fallout of Mexico approving a law limiting the work of foreign agents south of the border, including Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Mexico appears to be stepping up its migrant enforcement in 2021. News organization Animal Politico revealed Monday the apprehensions of migrants transiting Mexico increased 120% in the three months since U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ June 8 meeting with AMLO to discuss immigration issues.

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Meanwhile, the problem with guns is mounting in Mexico. The Mexican government has already filed suit against six U.S. gun manufacturers in a Massachusetts court, seeking $10 billion in damages.

The Foreign Relations Secretariat estimates as many as 500,000 illegal firearms enter Mexico annually with 70% coming from the United States – and into a country with only one legal gun store on an army base in Mexico City. Mexico's homicide rate, meanwhile, has stayed stubbornly high at 29 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants – nearly four times the U.S. homicide rate.

The meeting in Washington also marks an attempt at reviving North American integration at a time when companies are looking to bring manufacturing back from overseas – a product of post-pandemic supply chain challenges.

AMLO told reporters economic integration, migration and public health would be priorities at the summit. The president has spoken of wanting the United States to allow entry to people receiving vaccines not approved by the World Health Organization – such as Mexicans getting vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s CanSino.

He’s also mused of continental integration extending beyond North America to all the Americas – something he first mentioned at a September summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders.

“What we are also proposing … is not only the integration of the three countries, but of the entirety of the Americas,” AMLO told reporters on Friday.

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AMLO, who has Mexico pursuing a policy of non-intervention, takes just his third trip abroad to attend the trilateral summit since taking office in December 2018.

He speaks of having respectful relations with Biden. But the populist Mexican president previously courted a close relationship with former President Donald Trump, appearing with him at the White House in July 2020. AMLO was also one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden more than a month after the November 2020 election.

Bullet holes scar the wall of an abandoned home in El Limoncito, in the Michoacan state of Mexico, Oct. 30, 2021. The Mexican army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here, ordering soldiers to guard the dividing lines between gang territories so they won’t invade each other’s turf — and turn a blind eye to the cartels’ illegal activities.
Bullet holes scar the wall of an abandoned home in El Limoncito, in the Michoacan state of Mexico, Oct. 30, 2021. The Mexican army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here, ordering soldiers to guard the dividing lines between gang territories so they won’t invade each other’s turf — and turn a blind eye to the cartels’ illegal activities.

“AMLO genuinely feels a certain kinship with Trump, his style of governing and his way of appealing to a base,” said Bárbara González, a political analyst in Monterrey. “He’s wary of liberal democrats like Biden and Trudeau.”

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The United States and Canada bring concerns over López Obrador’s energy policies, which jeopardize U.S. and Canadian investments in petroleum, pipelines and renewables – the product of Mexico pursuing a policy of energy sovereignty.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar voiced “serious concerns” about an AMLO proposal to reform Mexico’s power sector, which would cancel contracts with private producers of gas-fired electricity and renewable energy – which sell into the national power grid. The proposal would also require the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission to use electricity from its own polluting power plants ahead of private wind and solar producers.

The Biden administration has put a priority on climate, but it’s an issue receiving little attention in Mexico – with AMLO skipping the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

AMLO has promoted a tree-planting program in southern Mexico as a climate mitigation measure, however – and recently pitched it to U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, who spoke positively of the endeavor. Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Wednesday that AMLO would discuss the program known as Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) with Biden as a method for slowing outward migration from Central America.

The program has been questioned, however, after a Bloomberg News investigation found rural residents were deforesting their land to claim stipends for replanting.

“It seems like the United States is prioritizing migration and security ahead of this issue,” González said. “Cooperation in security and migration first, then trade, then everything else.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden, AMLO, Trudeau meeting to take on guns, drug cartels

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