Ovidio and the Bilateral Relationship

The most obvious results of Mexico-U.S. cooperation in the war on drugs appear to replicate the dynamic of previous Mexican administrations.

The recent extradition of Ovidio Guzmán, son of the Sinaloa Cartel’s former boss, marks the latest milestone in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico on security issues. Celebrated in Washington with great fanfare as a landmark event in police cooperation between the two countries, the speedy extradition seems to fit with current politics. For Joe Biden, faced with the 2024 presidential election, this arrest represents a conspicuous outcome in the fight against the traffic in fentanyl, which is the source of one of the most serious health problems for the U.S. In 2022 alone, there were 12 million fentanyl users, and 110,000 people died from overdoses. In the Palacio Nacional, however, the reaction was something different: The Mexican president gave the impression that he acquiesced to the extradition to prevent it from being used politically in the U.S. election.

The cooperation of the two countries on security matters is an issue that will undoubtedly remain on the binational agenda. Because Mexico is so important to U.S. national security, joint operations have increased since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. More recently, the U.S. and Mexico were advancing the Mérida Initiative, meant to consolidate binational cooperation between the two countries on security matters through the so-called Four Pillars. This program was plagued by complications from its beginning as an assistance-oriented program to later on during the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto when it was no longer possible to determine its true effectiveness. After two six-year presidential terms, the issue of insecurity was showing no signs of abating. At the end of 2021, the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities, the so-called Bicentennial Understanding, was solidified. The objective of this agreement was to change the focus on security to prevention, but we know little about the results and the effort that this mechanism has produced.

The U.S. and Mexico have different priorities on security matters. In Mexico, the most urgent issue is reducing violence. In the U.S., however, the discussion is focused on narcotics and the health crisis caused by fentanyl. The U.S. blames the drug producing countries but does not acknowledge the failure of its approach to this problem domestically.

During the current six-year Mexican presidential term, the bilateral relationship has experienced various ups and downs. The detention of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda,* orchestrated by Washington in 2020 without the knowledge of the Mexican authorities, was interpreted as a sign of distrust and poor coordination between the two countries. The relationship with the Drug Enforcement Administration has been equally complex. The catastrophically failed arrest of Ovidio Guzmán in 2019 gave rise to the Battle of Culiacan** when the Sinaloa Cartel threatened to lay siege to the people of Culiacan. After the current Mexican government set El Chapo’s son free, the U.S. authorities’ disagreement with the Mexican federal government’s course of action became obvious. The major criticism was the U.S. authorities’ insistence on finalizing and speeding up pending extraditions. With the election just ahead, this new episode forces us to reflect on the priorities and agreements of the two countries regarding security matters as well as their shared responsibility.

Given the upcoming elections in both countries, the need of the governments to deliver results and ease pressure is accelerating. However, a change of approach is necessary on both sides of the border. No matter how much attention arrests of this type may get, they don’t attack the underlying problems. While the demand for fentanyl in the U.S. market persists, the power vacuum left by the capture of Guzmán will, in all probability, be filled by new bosses capable of continuing to move and traffic opioids. The public health crisis should be addressed by an integrated approach, with the emphasis on prevention and reduction of harm. The same applies to the Mexican government’s campaign. The most obvious result of binational cooperation appears to be reproducing the dynamic of the previous Mexican administrations: dramatic arrests orchestrated by the FBI and the DEA in coordination with the Mexican security authorities. As long as security strategy is not focused on prevention, which attacks the root causes of criminality, insecurity will continue.

*Translator’s note: Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was a general in the Mexican army. He was appointed secretary of national defense in 2012 under President Peña Nieto, was indicted in New York in 2019 on drug and money laundering charges and arrested in Los Angeles in 2020.

**Translator’s note: This event is also known as the Culiacanazo or Black Thursday.

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