The United States and Mexico sought to project a united front on Thursday in their efforts to deepen economic ties and crack down on illicit drug smuggling as the Biden administration looks to solidify its North American supply chain and reduce reliance on China.
At the conclusion of three days of meetings in Mexico City, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen announced that the U.S. and Mexico would begin working more closely to screen foreign investments coming into both countries with a new working group to weed out potential national security threats.
The collaboration comes as the administration looks to ensure that allies such as Mexico are able to partake of the billions of dollars of domestic energy and climate investments that the United States is deploying. However, as the administration seeks closer cross-border economic integration, it wants to ensure that Mexico is not the recipient of potentially problematic investments from countries such as China.
“Increased engagement with Mexico will help maintain an open investment climate while monitoring and addressing security risks, making both our countries safer,” Ms. Yellen said at a news conference on Thursday.
In Mexico, Ms. Yellen has had to strike a delicate balance, pushing her counterparts there to work harder to confront fentanyl trafficking into the U.S. while trying to deepen economic ties at a time when China is also investing heavily to build factories there.
Ms. Yellen has embraced Mexico, America’s largest trading partner, as a friendly ally during her trip — visiting drug-sniffing dogs and holding talks with top Mexican leaders. But there is growing frustration within the Biden administration over what officials perceive as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s unwillingness to invest in efforts to combat fentanyl trafficking in the region. An increasing number of U.S. officials have become more outspoken in recent months over the need to pressure Mexico to do more to crack down on fentanyl.
“The illicit trafficking of fentanyl devastates families and communities and poses a threat to our national security while also undermining public safety in Mexico,” Ms. Yellen said.
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 the chemical ingredients for fentanyl getting shipped from China to Mexico and turned into the potent synthetic drug that is then trafficked over the southern border into the United States.
Mr. López Obrador has generally rejected the notion that fentanyl is produced in his nation and described the U.S. drug crisis as a “problem of social decay.” He has argued that American politicians should not use his country as a scapegoat for the record number of overdoses in the United States. The growing number of fentanyl-related deaths have fueled calls by Republican presidential candidates to take military action against Mexico.
In February, Anne Milgram, the Drug Enforcement Administration administrator, said her agency was still not receiving sufficient information from Mexican authorities about fentanyl seizures or the entry of precursor chemicals in that country, and that the United States was increasingly concerned over the number of laboratories used to produce fentanyl in Mexico.
And in October, on the eve of Secretary Antony J. Blinken’s visit with President López Obrador in Mexico, Todd Robinson, the State Department’s assistant secretary of the bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, told The New York Times that the Mexican president was not acknowledging the severity of the drug crisis in the region.
The Mexican president would rather be in the category of “someone who has a problem but doesn’t know it,” he said.
Mr. Robinson, as well as officials in the Treasury Department, also believe Mexico must do more to bulk up its ports to intercept fentanyl precursors coming from China. Both Republicans and Democrats are specifically concerned over a port in Manzanillo, Mexico, that they say is a prime hub for fentanyl precursors.
The United States in the meantime has increasingly relied on the tools of the Treasury Department to target drug organizations in Mexico that are trafficking the dangerous drug to the United States.
Brian Nelson, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said in an interview in October that the department would continue to use sanctions to pressure cartel organizations and suppliers of fentanyl chemicals.
“We will continue to use our tools to map and trace the network’s suppliers of the precursor drugs that are flowing into Mexico from foreign countries, including China; the money laundering organizations that support the financial flows that enable this criminal enterprise,” Mr. Nelson said.
The Treasury Department accelerated those efforts this week with the creation of a new “counter-fentanyl strike force” that will aim to more aggressively scrutinize the finances of suspected narcotics dealers. On Wednesday, Ms. Yellen announced that the Treasury Department was imposing new sanctions against 15 Mexican individuals and two companies that are linked to the Beltrán Leyva Organization, a major distributor of fentanyl into the U.S.
At the same time that the Biden administration is trying to curb the flow of drugs coming from Mexico, Ms. Yellen emphasized a desire for more trade between the two countries and noted that the U.S. benefits from imports of Mexican steel, iron, glass and car parts.
The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act law in the U.S. allows American consumers to benefit from tax credits for electric vehicles that are assembled in Mexico, and Ms. Yellen said that she wants to see the automobile sector supply chain more tightly integrated between the two countries.
“The United States continues to pursue what I’ve called friend-shoring: seeking to strengthen our economic resilience through diversifying our supply chains across a wide range of trusted allies and partners,” Ms. Yellen said.
At the news conference, Ms. Yellen pushed back against the idea that the U.S. was encouraging Mexico to adopt more rigorous foreign investment safeguards because it wanted to deter Chinese investment there.
“As long as there are appropriate national security screens and those investments don’t create national security concerns for Mexico or the United States, we have absolutely no problem with China investing in Mexico to produce goods and services that will be imported into the United States,” Ms. Yellen said.