Mexico’s Nationalism Threatens North American Security

COMMENTARY Americas

Mexico’s Nationalism Threatens North American Security

Jan 6th, 2021 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Ana Rosa Quintana

Senior Policy Analyst, Latin America and Western Hemisphere

Ana Rosa Quintana leads The Heritage Foundation’s efforts on U.S. policy toward Latin America.
Lopez-Obrador speaks during a press conference on November 18, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Barcroft Media / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Mexico’s president enacted a law that will immediately unravel a key tool against organized crime.

Instead of seeking reforms, the Lopez-Obrador administration and its allies in Congress are unraveling decades of a carefully fostered security agenda.

Congress must take a proactive role in addressing this destructive agenda. Mexico cannot continue to be an afterthought for U.S. policy makers.

Few countries impact the lives of Americans like Mexico does. Mexico is the United States’ largest trading partner, with over $700 billion annually bought and sold between both markets. Beyond that, citizens along both sides of our 2,000-mile-long border pay the steep costs of the organized drug trade.

Yet recently, our neighbors moved to make North America less safe. After promising to maintain security cooperation in exchange for their former Defense Secretary being indicted in the United States for drug trafficking, Mexico’s president enacted a law that will immediately unravel a key tool against organized crime.

U.S. law enforcement officials in Mexico are stripped of their immunity and must report their investigations and activities to numerous Mexican authorities. Mexican officials meeting with U.S. agents must receive permission from an oversight board. Non-compliance with these rules leaves U.S. agents open to administrative and criminal charges in Mexico.

Mexican lawmakers claim these changes flow from a greater need for transparency, but these conditions will jeopardize investigations and the protection of sensitive information. With the politicization of the security agenda, public officials will also become more susceptible to corruption from organized crime. Recent high-profile arrests of Mexican cabinet members highlight how deeply entrenched cartels are within all aspects of the Mexican state.

Our geographic proximity means both countries share serious national security concerns; organized crime is rarely confined within borders. Leaders in both capitols know we need to work together. Yet this security partnership did not evolve overnight. It took time and effort for an increased rapport to develop.

Over the last three decades, cooperation between agencies broadened dramatically after generations of distrust. Expanded collaboration on defense issues, counter-narcotics, and intelligence sharing became a force multiplier in keeping North America safer.

It’s not perfect, no. As with all bilateral relationships, areas of friction and different priorities still exist. Yet both countries worked to keep North America safe.

Flawed conventional wisdom led many to presume Trump’s security-dominated agenda would impede cross-border relations. While Trump’s lack of statesmanship led to tense moments, his forward-leaning approach allowed diplomats to keep unproductive items off the bilateral agenda.

Moreover, it inadvertently created the groundwork for cooperation on traditionally sensitive issues despite initially discouraging signs from then-candidate Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador. He walked back a mass amnesty for drug traffickers, leniency for illegal Central American migrants and critiques of the USMCA, and Trump. To date, Trump is the only foreign leader Lopez-Obrador has visited outside of Mexico.

While Trump is not a popular figure south of the border, the discontent driving these policies predated his White House. Operation Fast and Furious, the Obama administration’s illegal gun-running scheme, paved the road for today’s political turmoil. Our Mexican partners are rightfully indignant that Eric Holder’s Department of Justice allowed Sinaloa cartel affiliates to purchase and traffic thousands of guns into Mexico. Mexico was never informed and clearly, their unease with some aspects of the security arrangement is well-earned.

Instead of seeking reforms, the Lopez-Obrador administration and its allies in Congress are unraveling decades of a carefully fostered security agenda. Long-term national interests are not driving the decision-making process either, as Mexico is experiencing the highest recorded levels of drug-fueled violence.

While Trump’s larger-than-life personality and braggadocio come off as overwhelming, they kept key bilateral issues at the top of the agenda. Now, Mexico City sees a window of opportunity to double down on Lopez-Obrador’s nationalist agenda and recalibrate the overall U.S. relationship.

As the Mexican government fast-tracked the security bill, they also attempted banking changes that would have converted the central bank into a state-sponsored money laundering institution. While postponed until January, the proposal approved by the Senate obligated the central bank to buy bulk foreign currency, mainly U.S. dollars, from local banks who were unable to sell these sums to larger institutions due anti-money laundering concerns. Illicit funds are routinely laundered through smaller banks as they have less oversight and often fewer anti-money laundering capabilities.

Mexico’s banking reform means the government would have unwittingly processed illicit financial transactions on behalf of organized crime and potentially terrorist organizations. Senate allies of the president claim the reform is necessary as migrants sending remittances are penalized when converting currency. Yet over 99% of remittances are wired from abroad and not sent in cash.

By enacting these security changes into law, Mexico is undoing decades of hard-fought and meticulously negotiated security cooperation with the United States. The consequences will be immediate and difficult to repair. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, Washington D.C. must wake up.

Congress must also take a proactive role in addressing this destructive agenda. Mexico cannot continue to be an afterthought for U.S. policy makers. These policies are not arbitrary or erratic initiatives. They are signal that Mexico seeks to untether itself from its northern neighbor, despite the security costs.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear World