As Fentanyl deaths rise, Mexico and the U.S. lack cooperation

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With a fentanyl crisis deepening across North America, US drug authorities in 2021 identified dozens of Mexican companies suspected of trafficking the narcotic’s key ingredients. They took their findings to the country’s financial intelligence chief at the time.

The two sides agreed to cooperate on a crackdown on the companies allegedly involved, according to current and former officials from both countries. Three people close to the US Drug Enforcement Administration say the arrangement included plans to freeze the accounts of the 50 Mexican businesses the agency had named as alleged traffickers.

More than a year and a half later, the effort has stalled, said the people close to the DEA, who asked not to be named because they aren’t authorized to speak about operations. The Mexican official, Santiago Nieto, departed in late 2021, and only one company on the US list has had its account blocked, they said.

The collapse of what US officials describe as a once-promising sign of cooperation underscores the fraught relations between the countries at a time synthetic drugs are killing Americans in record numbers. The explosion of fentanyl has become a particularly pressing issue for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has denied the narcotic is being produced in his country and frequently uses his daily press conferences to blame the US as an insatiable customer.

The past few weeks alone show the complexities of their drug-enforcement ties. A delegation of Mexican cabinet members in April traveled to the US and was met by mostly lower-level officials. After the meeting, the countries agreed in a statement to step up the fight against fentanyl production and illegal firearms trafficking to Mexico.

The next day, the US Justice Department indicted four sons of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on charges of running “the most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world.” Lopez Obrador repeatedly criticized DEA investigations the following week, saying they had violated Mexico’s sovereignty.

On May 9, Lopez Obrador spoke again with President Joe Biden about migration, drug trafficking, and gun smuggling to Mexico, saying on Twitter that the two leaders reaffirmed a commitment to work together. The same day, the US Treasury sanctioned one of Guzman’s sons, who are known as Los Chapitos, for allegedly helping to manage “super labs” and trafficking illicit drugs.

The countries have fallen into a “spiral of worsening and worsening relationships,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, who has provided testimony to the US Congress on Mexican organized crime.

“Los Chapitos provided powerful evidence of the vast fentanyl production in Mexico,” she said. “Now we have to see whether the recent high-level meetings will lead to better and adequate cooperation over time.”

Pablo Gomez, who replaced Nieto as Mexico’s head of financial intelligence in 2021, said that US officials haven’t complained about any lack of action on specific companies. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he said he didn’t know about any plan with the DEA to freeze accounts and that his unit had blocked the accounts of dozens of companies linked to fentanyl trafficking.

“There is nothing that is not analyzed and acted upon based on our cooperation framework,” Gomez said.

Gomez didn’t identify the companies whose accounts had been frozen. Of the DEA’s top 50 list of suspected ingredient traffickers, only Grupo Pochteca, the country’s biggest locally owned chemical distributor, has had its accounts frozen since 2021, according to the people close to the matter. The company has denied any illegal activity.

Accounts can only be legally frozen if there is a formal request from the US government, Gomez said, adding that there has been criticism of how Pochteca’s accounts have been handled. He said it doesn’t necessarily make sense to block accounts to a company that has thousands of workers because of the actions of a few people potentially involved in importing drug chemicals.

Source: El Financiero

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