Editorial: U.S.-Mexico officials must put aside animosity to stop fentanyl deaths

FILE -A display of the fentanyl and meth that was seized by Customs and Border Protection officers over the weekend at the Nogales Port of Entry is shown during a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Nogales, Ariz. As the number of U.S. overdose deaths continues to soar, states are trying to take steps to combat a flood of the drug that has proved the most lethal -- illicitly produced fentanyl. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)
A display of the fentanyl and meth seized by Customs and Border Protection officers in 2019 in Nogales, Ariz. (Mamta Popat / Associated Press)

A round of indictments against a major Mexican fentanyl trafficking ring last week presents an opportunity to hobble the multinational drug enterprise killing people on both sides of the border — but only if leaders in the United States and Mexico can stop sniping at each other and overcome a rift between them.

U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, announcing the indictments against Sinaloa cartel leaders and other alleged drug traffickers Friday, called it “the largest, most violent and prolific fentanyl traffic operation in the world.” But it didn’t take long for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to question the investigation that led to the charges against Los Chapitos, four sons of the infamous drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo and believed to have handed leadership of the Sinaloa cartel to his sons. López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, on Monday accused the U.S. government of spying and violating Mexico’s national sovereignty.

Such discord is, unfortunately, not unexpected considering that leaders in both countries have been engaging in a war of words for weeks since four U.S. citizens were attacked by a drug gang while visiting the Mexican border city of Matamoros in early March. Two died in gunfire and two others were kidnapped, and released a few days later. The kidnappings prompted Republicans to call for designating drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and for the U.S. to invade Mexico to battle these cartels. Though the frustration is understandable, such vigilante-style fantasies are antithetical to a good relationship between two countries.

It's particularly disappointing because just a few months ago, the presidents of the U.S., Mexico and Canada pledged cooperation against fentanyl trafficking during a meeting in Mexico City. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. In the U.S., fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death among those between 18 and 49 years old.

Relations between the U.S. and Mexico on the topic of drug trafficking have always been rocky, with drugs coming from Mexico to feed the heavy demand in the U.S. But AMLO took it a step too far. Responding to Republican threats, he suggested absurdly that U.S. parents were to blame for the fentanyl crisis for failing to hug their kids enough. He further inflamed ire in the U.S. when he categorically denied that fentanyl is produced in Mexico, contrary to evidence gathered by U.S. law enforcement.

It also runs counter to information contained in the indictments handed down last week in Washington, D.C., Illinois and New York. The investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. law enforcement officials tracked a huge drug trafficking enterprise that runs from China to Mexico and the U.S.. DEA agents infiltrated the Sinaloa cartel and the Chapitos network to document how the cartel obtains chemicals from China, manufactures the fentanyl in clandestine labs in Mexico and finally distributes the drugs in the U.S., according to the indictments. The documents provide an eye-opening look into the workings of a major criminal enterprise with multinational reach using a vast network of couriers, tunnels and stash houses.

These indictments are a major blow against one of the biggest drug cartels. Seven of the 28 defendants named in the indictments are in custody pending extradition hearings, but the others are at large. Finding them and arresting them will require the cooperation of Mexico and, likely, other countries. Both countries continue to pledge cooperation, including on the day the indictments were announced, but trading barbs is not helping those efforts.

With the drug wars having claimed thousands of lives on both sides of the border, it’s imperative that American and Mexican leaders stop antagonizing each other and focus on their common goal of reducing the violence and death associated with the illegal fentanyl trade.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.