Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other top Biden administration officials traveled to Mexico City on Wednesday hoping to bolster a strategy to confront staggering fentanyl overdoses in the United States and soaring migration in the Western Hemisphere.
While the United States and Mexico have emphasized the importance of their economic ties, the meetings come as rhetoric from both nations has grown increasingly contentious over how to confront drug trafficking, illegal immigration and other top foreign policy challenges.
Mr. Blinken, as well as Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and his security secretary, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, during the two-day visit.
The meeting is not expected to yield groundbreaking policy announcements, but presents an opportunity to ease some of the tensions between the two allies while addressing crises that have emerged as some of President Biden’s greatest vulnerabilities going into the 2024 presidential race.
“The relationship with our neighbor is arguably the most important that we have in terms of the practical impact that it has on the lives of our citizens every day, in so many ways, but also in a number of very challenging ways,” Mr. Blinken said Tuesday at an event at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The United States is concerned with fatal overdoses of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, which have become among the leading causes of death for Americans between 18 and 49, Mr. Blinken said. In Mexico, he added, the concern is over the flow of weapons from the United States that end up in the hands of the cartels.
U.S. officials in recent weeks have been outspoken over the need to get more help from Mexico to quell the flow of drugs coming north. Nearly 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses in the United States, a crisis that U.S. officials say is largely driven by chemical precursors getting shipped to Mexico from China and turned into synthetic drugs that are trafficked over the border.
Todd Robinson, the State Department’s assistant secretary of the bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs who will join the meetings, said in an interview on Tuesday that he wants Mr. López Obrador to prioritize investing more resources on security issues like drug trafficking. “We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and security is a very, very important issue both for the United States and Mexico,” he said.
The Mexican president should deploy federal law enforcement and the military more aggressively to intercept chemicals from China used to produce fentanyl, as well as close labs in Mexico producing the drug, Mr. Robinson said.
Mexican top officials on Tuesday defended the country’s counter-narcotic efforts, pointing to significant seizures of fentanyl in recent months. Mr. López Obrador has often said American politicians should not use his country as a scapegoat for the record number of overdoses in the United States, and that it is up to American lawmakers to address the “problem of social decay.”
“These issues are used for propaganda, whether it is one party or the other,” Mr. López Obrador said on Monday, calling out Republicans for campaigning on fentanyl and illegal migration. Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as former President Donald J. Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking on the campaign trail, have even proposed military action to target drug cartels in Mexico, the United States’s top trade partner.
“Politicians without principles, without ideals, dishonest, opportunistic,” Mr. López Obrador added. “They are not capable of self-criticism and of going to the causes.”
But Mr. Robinson said Mr. Lopez Obrador was not acknowledging the severity of the drug crisis in the region by claiming on multiple occasions that fentanyl was not produced in his country. Local officials and law enforcement officials in Mexico “see clearly the problem with violence, the problem with usage, the problem with the growing impunity of these networks” making money off fentanyl, Mr. Robinson said.
The Mexican president would rather be in the category of “someone who has a problem but doesn’t know it,” he added.
Mexico has taken some steps to address the problem, including categorizing chemicals coming from China as a criminal substance and committing to work with the United States to disrupt the financing of criminal groups producing fentanyl and opioids, U.S. officials said.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration sanctioned 28 people and organizations, including a China-based network involved in producing and distributing precursor materials used in fentanyl and other illegal drugs.
The Justice Department also unsealed eight indictments charging Chinese companies with producing fentanyl and methamphetamine, distribution of synthetic opioids and sales resulting from precursor chemicals.
Last week, the United States also sanctioned members of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the largest Mexican traffickers of fentanyl to the United States.
U.S. officials will also need Mexico’s help to deter a spike in illegal migration across the southern border.
After a brief lull in crossings over the summer, arrests along the southern border have picked up in recent weeks, hitting 9,000 on Saturday alone.
Border officials and communities are overwhelmed with the tide of people trying to cross the border in search of refuge from violence and extreme poverty, and an increasing number of lawmakers in Mr. Biden’s own party have criticized the White House’s strategy.
One such official is the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, who also plans to travel to Mexico City while the Biden delegation is there, though he is not scheduled to meet with administration officials during his visit.
During the trip, which includes stops in Ecuador and Colombia, the mayor will describe how the migration influx has exhausted New York City resources. The city is housing more than 61,000 migrants, as of September, many of them in congregate shelters, and Mr. Adams has warned the crisis may prompt him to cut the city budget by 15 percent in the coming months.
To relieve pressure on American cities, the Biden administration is hopeful that Mexico will step up enforcement near the country’s southern border with Guatemala to slow the pace of migrants approaching the U.S. border.
Mexican officials said 6,000 people were crossing its southern border every day. U.S. and Mexican officials are developing a new migration processing center in southern Mexico where migrants can apply for refugee status in the United States rather that journey to the border.
The Biden administration is increasingly relying on Mexico and other Central American nations to deter migrants as what was once a humanitarian crisis of overcrowding in border communities stretches to cities throughout the United States.
But Mr. López Obrador has often criticized the emphasis on slowing the flow of migration over addressing the violence and corruption forcing people to flee their homes as the primary solution to driving down illegal migration. Last month, Mr. López Obrador has called for foreign ministers of 10 Latin American countries to come together and develop a joint aid plan aimed at addressing immigration.
As Mr. Lopez Obrador has pressured Mr. Biden to invest more to address the root causes of migration in the Western Hemisphere, he has also criticized the White House support of Ukraine as irrational. Mr. Lopez Obrador raised eyebrows in Washington last month when he invited a contingent of Russian soldiers to march in a military parade in Mexico City, a move that Matt Miller, a U.S. State Department spokesman, described as an “odd decision.”
Mexico has also been pressing the Biden administration to do more to stop the smuggling of firearms and other weapons from the United States to Mexico. In particular, Mr. López Obrador’s administration wants Washington to go after American gun manufacturers and distributors.
“The way U.S. law is written, people can purchase guns and resell them at will,” Mr. Robinson said, adding that federal agencies are focusing on targeting criminals who obtain firearms and distribute them south.
Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, said the range of issues that will be covered during the visit showed just how important an ally Mexico is to the United States.
“We can’t solve migration or drug trafficking or fentanyl,” Mr. Rudman said “by ourselves without Mexico.”
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Dana Rubinstein and Andy Newman from New York City.