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Will US sanctions on Mexican cartels make a difference?

Taking a look at how U.S.-Mexico relations have deteriorated this year and how the new imposed sanctions factor in.
Will US sanctions on Mexican cartels make a difference?
Posted at 8:13 PM, Nov 19, 2023

The Biden administration announced new sanctions against a number of members of the Sonora, Mexico-based Sinaloa cartel.

According to the White House, the move was made to “disrupt the global fentanyl supply chain."

It follows other sanctions the administration has imposed on drug cartels over the past few years.

The sanctions come as political tensions between the U.S. and Mexico have been rising.

Some U.S. lawmakers, particularly from the GOP, have harshly criticized Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“Under the Biden administration and the Lopez Obrador administration in Mexico, three years and going, the relationship between the two countries has been at a low point,” said Tony Payan, Director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University. “They are also very frustrated with Mexico because the Mexican government doesn't seem to even acknowledge that there is a problem. In fact, the Lopez Obrador administration denied several times that Mexico even produced fentanyl or that Mexico was even used as a transit point for such drugs.”

In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to members of the Sinaloa cartel, a top exporter of fentanyl, the group has tried to prohibit its production and trafficking after increased pressure from U.S. law enforcement.

But with frustrations reaching a breaking point on Capitol Hill, some lawmakers have called for more extreme measures.

In the spring, some GOP senators called for military action by the U.S. against the cartels.

“I think John [Senator Kennedy] and I believe that if there were an ISIS or Al Qaeda cell [operating] in Mexico that lobbed a rocket into Texas, we would wipe them off the planet. They’re doing that times thousands,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham.

SEE MORE: What are the impacts of Mexican cartels on the US?

But the Mexican President rebuked the idea by saying, “We are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene.”

“These conflicts are deeply embedded in politics and institutions and partly in civilian populations and licit economies. There's no way of dismantling that just by applying more force,” said Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst at International Crisis Group. “What is often forgotten in this approach and where this approach could become more effective is white collar operatives, i.e., money launderers, political allies of criminal groups that sit within institutions, within security institutions, including the military, and really provide continued impunity for these groups to continue killing each other and killing civilians on the ground.”

Adding to the breakdown in relations is that the cartels have long been well-armed with mostly American-made and trafficked weapons, a talking point President Lopez Obrador has often repeated.

An ATF analysis looked at seizures between 2017 and 2021 and found an estimated 70% of guns used by cartels were manufactured in America.

An analysis of data from the Mexican government looked at only weapons recovered by the Mexican military where the gun maker could be identified. The researchers found U.S. companies made up 7 of the top 10 manufacturers, though the analysis admitted half of the weapons had no identifiable manufacturer marks left.

The Mexican government has brought lawsuits against U.S. gun manufacturers in Massachusetts and Arizona federal courts.

Some observers have argued that the suits may be legal long shots, but they symbolically send a message to the U.S.

“I think what the two countries need to do is to set a basic set of principles upon which they will collaborate,” said Payan. “If you don't do it that way, if you don't take a look at the whole chain and your interest in every single link along the way, then we're up for a very failed strategy in the future.”

The U.S. and Mexican governments both face challenges: increased demand for narcotics in the U.S., increased supply of fentanyl in Mexico, and well-armed cartels so embedded in communities that simple military action will likely not be enough to win the war on drugs.

As for a sign of change, all eyes will be on the two presidential elections in 2024, both in the U.S. and in its largest trading partner, the South.

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