López Obrador also sought to deflect attention from Mexico’s role in the fentanyl epidemic. He claimed his country does not produce the substance, which is responsible for the majority of U.S. drug overdose deaths, and cast its abuse as an American problem. U.S. law enforcement officials have said fentanyl is mass-produced by Mexican drug cartels and then distributed by American criminal networks.
More than 107,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose in 2021, the highest recorded number, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds of the fatalities were caused by fentanyl, which can be prescribed by physicians to treat severe pain, but which also flows illegally across the border from Mexico in smuggled shipments of powerful tablets, The Washington Post has reported.
López Obrador has often criticized U.S. officials, including then-President Donald Trump and, more recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Mexican leader is under immense domestic pressure over his attempt to overhaul an electoral institute that is seen as integral to its young democracy.
The verbal clash with GOP officials followed the kidnapping of four U.S. citizens last week, two of whom were killed. (On Thursday, Mexican authorities discovered five zip-tied men and an apology note, purportedly from a Gulf Cartel faction that wanted to hand over the alleged perpetrators.)
While the kidnapping and killings were not directly related to the fentanyl issue, they provided the spark for Republicans to renew pressure on the Biden administration over what they see as lax enforcement of border and drug controls, as well as on López Obrador. Liz Sherwood-Randall, a top homeland security adviser to President Biden, led a U.S. delegation to Mexico this week to coordinate efforts “against the scourge of fentanyl,” U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar said.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) this week again urged the Biden administration to initiate military action against cartels. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) demanded that U.S. forces “destroy drug labs,” though he added that the military should not forcibly enter Mexico.
At least two Republican senators have also introduced legislation that would designate drug cartels as foreign terrorist groups, which proponents say would further curtail their room for maneuver. The White House said the federal government already has the powers it needs and has “not been afraid to use them.”
U.S. officials say they believe Mexico surpassed China as the top producer of U.S.-bound fentanyl in 2019, following a crackdown by Beijing on production of the opioid. Chinese companies continue to send chemicals to Mexico that are used to make fentanyl, U.S. officials say.
While seizures of fentanyl at the U.S. border have soared, Mexican officials have found few production labs. Mexican officials say Chinese producers might be sending fentanyl powder Mexico, where it’s simply pressed into pills, and often combined with other substances.
Republican demands to designate cartels as terrorist groups are not new. The Trump administration also considered the proposal in 2019, leading to intense pushback from Mexican authorities, who worried that the restrictions triggered by such a designation would limit intergovernmental cooperation, causing a catastrophic impact on the economy and trade.
López Obrador came to power in 2018 pledging to end the U.S.-backed “war on drugs,” which he blamed for violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years. He gave a more prominent role in the anti-narcotics effort to the army and sidelined the navy, which had worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration to take down drug kingpins. He also espoused a policy of “hugs, not bullets,” aimed at using social programs to lure young people from cartels.
More recently, however, U.S. officials have increased pressure on López Obrador to crack down on fentanyl — and the Mexican government has stepped up its efforts. In mid-February, the Mexican government announced a major bust at a lab where soldiers found more than 600,000 pills suspected to contain fentanyl.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials who say that Chinese fentanyl producers might be sending the powder to Mexico to be pressed into pills. That has been suggested by Mexican officials, not U.S. officials. The article has been corrected.
*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.