U.S. and Mexico Strengthen Cooperation in the Fight Against Fentanyl Trafficking

February 8, 2024

In a background press call conducted via teleconference at 9:06 A.M. EST, senior Biden administration officials from the United States discussed the outcomes of the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee’s fourth meeting in Mexico and bilateral engagements between the two countries. The call, led by the White House Homeland Security Advisor, Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall, provided insights into the discussions and collaborative efforts to combat fentanyl trafficking and enhance overall security.


Text provided by White House:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 8, 2024 NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL

BACKGROUND PRESS CALL
BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
ON BILATERAL ENGAGEMENTS AND
THE TRILATERAL FENTANYL COMMITTEE’S
FOURTH MEETING IN MEXICO

Via Teleconference
9:06 A.M. EST
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  Good morning, everyone.  And thank you so much for joining us on this call this morning to discuss the bilateral engagements and the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee’s fourth meeting in Mexico, which was led by the White House Homeland Security Advisor, Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall.
 
As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to senior administration officials, and it will be embargoed until the end of the call.
 
For your awareness, not for reporting purposes, on the line we have [senior administration official], [senior administration official], [senior administration official] from the Department of Homeland Security.  From Department of Justice, we have [senior administration official].  And from the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, we have [senior administration official].
 
And with that, I will turn it to [senior administration official] to give us just brief toplines on the trip’s first day.
 
Over to you.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Good morning.  And thank you, Vanessa. 
 
On February 6th to 7th, Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall led an interagency delegation to Mexico.  She was accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Kristie Canegallo, and Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Adam Cohen, as well as Tiffany, my colleague, and I accompanied the delegation as well as other representatives from the State Department, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and of course, our ambassador and members of the embassy team.
 
The focus of our bilateral engagements was to continue what has been a consistent, constructive, and candid dialogue between our two countries and to strengthen cooperation with Mexican partners on a range of topics, including managing hemispheric migration, countering traffic of illicit drugs and weapons, as well as regional coordination efforts on the same.
 
On the first day, Dr. Sherwood-Randall and our Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Foreign Secretary Alicia Bárcena, which was intended for the president and our Homeland Security Advisor to build — to follow up on the conversations between President Joe Biden and President López Obrador on February 3rd.
 
I won’t say more than — beyond what was in the readout yesterday, except to say that it was a long and substantive discussion on a range of topics and incredibly productive and constructive from our perspective.
 
Now, following that meeting, the full interagency delegation then met with counterparts of the Mexican security cabinet to review progress made through our joint efforts and to determine a number of next steps. 
 
So, on that end, we agreed to two concrete steps: to increase information and data sharing between the United States and Mexico — to increase the already existing relationship we have on information and data sharing to facilitate action against criminal organizations that traffic people, guns, and illicit drugs, including fentanyl, into our communities; and agreed to a specific set of timelines so that we keep ourselves on track, accountable, and delivering for our peoples of the country.
 
When I mention “specific,” we are, you know, obviously sharing information actively with the Mexicans.  We’ve agreed to basically track the same metrics and really, kind of, measure our own progress against the metrics that we’re setting for ourselves.
 
I’ll leave it at that so we have more time for questions.  Back to you, Vanessa.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you so much one.  At this moment, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official] to go over day two.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hey, good morning.  Thank you all for joining us.
 
So, yesterday, Mexico’s Secretary of Security and Citizen Protection Rosa Icela Rodríguez hosted White House Homeland Security Advisor Dr. Liz Sherwood-Randall and Canada’s Deputy Clerk and National Security and Intelligence Advisor Nathalie Drouin in the fourth meeting of the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee to review progress on our commitments and discuss further joint actions to stem the flow of illicit synthetic drugs and firearms trafficking.
 
By way of background, President Biden, President López Obrador, and Prime Minister Trudeau established the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee in January of last year, during the North American Leaders’ Summit, to guide party actions to address the threat from illicit synthetic drugs, notably fentanyl, in North America.
 
At the meeting yesterday, we all agreed that this is a shared threat not only for countries in North America but around the globe.  We also agreed we must not wait to act — to continue to act until this becomes an even bigger crisis in our homes, communities, and countries.
 
We will be issuing a joint communiqué shortly on the meeting, but I’ll take a few minutes just to go over actionable, concrete steps our three countries committed to.
 
So, first, we committed to increasing collaboration on the control of precursor chemicals and equipment related to illicit drug production. 
 
Second, we agreed to continuously review our legal framework to identify areas for improvement and to close any identified gaps.
 
Thirdly, we agreed to further engage the private sector to combat the production of illicit synthetic drugs and highlight legal risks.
 
Fourth, to strengthen diplomatic efforts to build on the progress of the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats and with other countries around the world.
 
Fifth, to develop and implement a common drug and substances analysis protocol, which will allow toxicologists from all three countries to improve our understanding of regional drug trends.
 
Sixth, to convene a forum to discuss strategies and their implementation for assisting the long-term recovery of individuals with substance use disorders.
 
Seven, to expand the scope of the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee to address firearms trafficking under the auspices of the North American Drug Dialogue.
 
Eight, to commit to developing a trilateral report that documents cross-border firearm seizures in all three countries to better inform our strategies and actions.
 
Nine, to commit to increase our use of the ATF’s eTrace Database to allow for more and faster joint investigations into the illicit trafficking of firearms across our shared borders.
 
And finally, tenth, both Mexico and Canada committed to embed personnel at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection National Targeting Center to increase and expedite information sharing on criminals and illicit activities associated with the trafficking of both fentanyl and firearms.
 
And then, finally, the group committed to meet again sometime in the spring, most likely in Canada.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  With that, I think we’re going to go straight into questions.  I recognize that we started a few moments late, so we’re going to go straight into questions.
 
Just a friendly reminder to our friends on the line that we will keep questions focused on this trip to Mexico.  You can ask about on bilateral engagements with our Mexican partners and the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee’s fourth meeting with the Mexican and Canadian partners.
 
Please, I know that there might be questions about ongoing negotiations on the Hill.  We ask kindly that we keep the questions focused on the trip.
 
With that, Candace, over to you to give our friends on the line the instructions on how to ask questions.  Over.
 
We’ll go first to Rafael Bernal from the Hill. 
 
Q    Hi.  Thank you for having this.  A couple of quick questions.  And I don’t mean to be flip about this, but is the joint communiqué going to address democratic decline in Mexico?
 
And related question: You know, there’s been a lot of allegations of corruption in — and drug-related corruption in President López Obrador’s immediate circle.  That’s made a lot of noise lately.  Does that affect the level of confidence in which you can engage in deals with that government?  And obviously, you know, he’s not doing all the work with his immediate and broader circles.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I can take the first one, and then my colleagues can jump in on the others.
 
So, thanks, Rafael.  The topic of democratic governance is not in the statement because it was not the focus of the conversation.  We focused strictly on trilateral fentanyl cooperation and a number of other topics, which are the purview of the Homeland Security Advisor.
 
But we engage in wide-ranging discussions directly with the Mexicans on these topics, so I would not read into its exclusion as something that is deprioritized.  It just wasn’t the subject of the meeting.
 
MODERATOR:  [Senior administration official], do you want to take the second one?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  This is [senior administration official] from DOJ. 
 
The Deputy Attorney General had productive conversations with Attorney General Gertz and also members of the Mexican security cabinet.  And the issue that you flagged was never raised because what we were talking about was how we’re going to work going forward on countering fentanyl and firearms trafficking.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  We’ll go to José Díaz from the Reforma.
 
Q    Thank you so much.  On January 19, President Biden told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that fentanyl flows to the U.S. had slowed down.  Can you provide some metrics to back up that statement?  Because we haven’t gotten any.
 
And did you address — sorry, did the National [sic] Security Advisor address the complaints by the Mexican president during that meeting regarding these stories and ProPublica and other outlets about his potential involvement — sorry, the potential involvement of drug money in his first presidential campaign?  Thank you.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  [Senior administration official], do you want me to do the second part?  And then somebody can take fentanyl.
 
Really quickly, just — look, on the second part, we’re not going to get into the details of the internal conversations between the Homeland Security Advisor and the president.
 
Again, I think the focus of the discussion that we had, either — both in the bilateral meeting and the trilateral fentanyl discussion — was on strengthening already excellent cooperation that we have with the Mexicans on a number of topics, including law enforcement cooperation, migration, and just broader regional efforts to address the root causes of migration.
 
So we were focused on building on a very strong foundation of cooperation that we built.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi, this is [senior administration official] from State Department.  I can address the first part of the question if you’d like.
 
MODERATOR:  Please go ahead, [senior administration official].
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, thanks.
 
What we believe we are seeing is more of a flattening of the numbers of fentanyl, but we are watching them month by month, and we judge it on an annual basis from summer to summer.  So I think we will have a much better idea later this summer.  But we have seen the numbers flatten, I would say, so we are hoping that will lead to a decline.
 
However, you know, nearing 110,000 drug overdose deaths total, with about 70 percent of those coming from synthetic drugs, including fentanyl — it’s still way too high.  So we have some work to do. 
 
Over.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks, [senior administration official].  Thanks, [senior administration official].
 
We’ll go next to Colleen Long from the AP.
 
Q    Hi there.  Thank you for doing the call.  I have two questions.
 
So, the first one is: You were talking about how to measure success.  I just wondered if you could go into that a little bit more, because I assume it’s more than just, like, you know, fentanyl product seized.  And I know that it’s often really difficult to sort of, like, prove a negative if there are fewer instances of fentanyl — how do you know if you’re succeeding.  So I was kind of curious about, like, how the measurements would work.
 
And then, I know that you guys can’t necessarily get into this, but I just have to ask if this — you know, how these
efforts to sort of combat fentanyl may or may not be affected by, you know, whatever lack of funding is happening thanks to Congress.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Look, thanks.  On the metrics — and, [senior administration official], you may want to add to this as well.  Look, you’re exactly right that, you know, we’re not — it’s not necessarily effective to measure very, kind of, singular outcomes, metrics.  A lot of the metrics that we are basically discussing with the Mexicans reflect what is incredibly complex and sophisticated cooperation that we have in information sharing, in how we actually approach law enforcement operations, you know, how we actually allocate our investment resources.
 
And so, a lot of this is really just part of our internal planning process to ensure that, you know, when it comes to whether it’s information sharing at the ports, whether it is information on law enforcement operations in the United States that can benefit Mexico, or the other way around, trying to arrive at common metrics to show that our cooperation is improving.  It also gives us good insights into how we’re disrupting the functioning of transnational criminal organizations, a sense of where the flowing — the trafficking routes are.
 
So a lot of it is really trying to make sure that when we are engaging as robustly and as actively as we are with the Mexicans, that we’re basically comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges to improve how we can actually adjust to what is, you know, criminal organizations that are evolving and adapting rapidly.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  To add to what [senior administration official] said, that, you know, what the Biden-Harris administration has been really focused on is on saving American lives.  And when we meet with our partners in Canada and Mexico, that’s what we’re focused on doing, is saving the lives of our citizens in all three countries from the scourge of both fentanyl and firearms.
 
And so, what we’ve been focused on is taking a whole series of actions, both in this context with Mexico and Canada and stopping the flow of fentanyl and firearms, as well as doing things on the public health side, trying to make lifesaving treatments more available to members of the population of the United States, et cetera.  So I think it’s a whole host of actions.
 
And we have seen some progress on that front by, kind of, the flattening of the curve of the number of individuals in the United States that are dying from overdose deaths.
 
And so, this is just kind of one piece of everything that we are doing in the U.S. context to try and save American lives, working with our partners in Mexico and Canada, and tackling this shared threat in a global context through things like the global coalition that I mentioned and others, because this really is — the synthetic drug threat really is a global threat.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official] at State, if I can just add on to what [senior administration official] was saying.
 
Mexico is actually playing a very active role in the global coalition.  They are the co-chair of the working group on health issues, which is a priority for them, which has been great.  We have worked with them and other countries, and have — to identify emerging threats as well, because while it’s fentanyl right now, it isn’t just fentanyl; it’s a polydrug problem — it’s fentanyl mixed with other drugs.
 
And together with Mexico and other countries, we have already identified that liquid fentanyl, which is medical grade and not as lethal, is being introduced into the illicit market in the hopes of trying to hook additional people.
 
So the work that we are doing with Mexico, Canada, and everyone else in the global coalition is already starting to pay dividends just in information sharing and exchanges, but we also will have a lot of projects we’ll work on with them together. 
 
Mexico has also been very supportive in the multilateral fora.  They participated in an event with the Secretary of State at the U.N. General Assembly.  They have supported us in resolutions, saying that this is a global threat that requires global action, and also in getting additional precursors scheduled at the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
 
Over.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you, [senior administration official].  Super helpful.
 
We’ll go next to José de Córdoba.  José, if you could remind us which outlet you are from.  Thank you.
 
Q    Yes, hi.  This is José de Córdoba from the Wall Street Journal.
 
I have two questions.  Last year, people in the Sinaloa cartel said they were stopping fentanyl trafficking in the areas they control around Culiacan.  Some dealers were killed.  Some labs were shut down.  Is that continuing?  And if so, has the Sinaloa cartel stopped trafficking fentanyl?  And if so, who has taken up the slack?  That’s one question.
 
The second question is: Does Mexico — the Mexican government accept that there are fentanyl labs operating in Mexico?
 
MODERATOR:  Perhaps [senior administration official] can start off with the first, or (inaudible), and then [senior administration official] can take the second one.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official] from DOJ.
 
So, on the first question about whether Sinaloa has stopped fentanyl production, I’ll say that that topic also did not come up during our meetings with the Mexicans.  We were focused on stopping fentanyl crossing the border from Mexico into the United States and the joint efforts we can take there, wherever the fentanyl is coming from, from whatever drug-trafficking organization is peddling it across the border.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, and I would just underscore what my colleague from DOJ said — is that the focus of the conversation was really on expanding our cooperation to deliver outcomes.  And so, we didn’t — we really actually focused on increasing those areas of collaboration.  And I think that was the focus of the discussion.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hey, this is [senior administration official].  So the one thing I would add to what my colleagues have said is that, you know, regardless of what Sinaloa has said publicly, we know that fentanyl is still continuing to come across our border into the United States.  We’re continuing to see fentanyl that is entering the United States, both in powder and pill format. 
 
So I think that just emphasizes the need for these meetings and, kind of, for our continued cooperation on these issues.
 
MODERATOR:  All right, is there — hearing no other comments from our speakers, I’ll go to our last question.
 
Jesus Esquivel, can you remind us — are you ProPublica?
 
Q    Hi, good morning.  This is Jesus Esquivel from Proceso Magazine of Mexico.
 
I have two questions to [senior administration official].  Foreign Minister of Mexico Bárcena said, even though that you say you’re going to talk about the details, that the U.S. government in these meetings — the case of (inaudible) involvement of drug money in the campaign was closed.
 
And secondly, it was a discussion with regard to the argument of the Mexican government that has been illegal traffic of military weapons from the U.S. and Mexico?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Happy to answer that, Jesus.
 
Look, so I think what you’re referring to is the press conference the foreign secretary gave after the meetings.  And she was saying that what she said (inaudible) was referring to the — that it’s just not something that — it was not the focus of the discussion, has not impacted the bilateral relationship.  And, in fact, that was really the spirit of the conversations, was building on what has been an excellent foundation that we’ve built since 2021.
 
And, you know, can you repeat the second part of the question?
 
Q    If there was any discussion of the argument of the Mexican government that has been illegal traffic of military weapons from the U.S. to Mexico.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I’ll let DOJ speak to that.  We can step in as well.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi, this is [senior administration official].
 
So, that topic, we did discuss the trafficking of weapons from the United States to Mexico.  Obviously, it’s a large problem and one that we have an obligation and that we would like to assist both United States citizens and Mexican citizens with stopping.  The idea of trafficking of military weapons into Mexico came up.  We discussed it.  And there’s no evidence that military weapons from the United States are being trafficked into Mexico.
 
MODERATOR:  All right, I see we have one more question from José from the Wall Street Journal.  We’ll go to José.
 
Q    Yes, hi.  The president of Mexico has many times said that there are no fentanyl labs operating in Mexico.  I would assume that would have an impact on cooperation between the two countries on how to deal with fentanyl.  What is Mexico’s official position on that now?  What does the U.S. think about it?
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi, this is [senior administration official].  You know, as to Mexico’s official position, we would, of course, defer to the Mexican government to provide their official position.
 
What I will say about our cooperation with Mexico is that it is very strong across these issues.  I think the, kind of, series of due-outs that I went over that will be in the joint communiqué today from the Trilateral Fentanyl Committee is good evidence of that. 
 
And we know that our Mexican colleagues work very hard against this threat on a daily basis, that they have made great sacrifices in this fight — you know, the loss of their soldiers and policemen in this fight.  And we recognize that and appreciate that. 
 
And we feel that we have a very strong partnership across all aspects of this issue, from trying to shut down the flow of fentanyl across our border to working on firearms to working together on the public health aspect of this threat.
 
MODERATOR:  All right.  So we’ll have time for one last question.  We’ll go to Teresa Cebrián.  Teresa, would you please remind us what outlet you’re from?
 
Q    Hi, how are you?  Yes, this is Teresa from PBS NewsHour.
 
I want to talk about some reporting that fentanyl is primarily trafficked by U.S. citizens.  This is something that Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alicia Bárcena has also said.  I wanted to know if that came up in your conversations and what you’re doing to address that.  Thank you.
 
MODERATOR:  [Senior administration official] or [senior administration official, either of you want to start off with this one?
 
We might have lost them.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me jump in real quick, Vanessa, just with some toplines on this.  This is [senior administration official].
 
So, look, I think it’s important to note here that fentanyl trafficking has an entire supply chain.  And we are, you know, focusing on the cooperation on preventing the flow of precursor chemicals, some of which are obviously dual-use.  On that, we’ve made incredible progress with the Mexicans, focusing on the transnational criminal organizations that are trafficking and involve the manufacturing of that — of fentanyl, and then, of course, the trafficking across the border.
 
There have been some open-source reporting that the majority of the trafficking comes in through points of entry.  That is largely accurate.  And others are saying that primarily U.S. persons coming across the border.  I think it’s important to, I think, note that the criminal supply chain is one that is incredibly long and that we are focusing on actually attacking the transnational criminal networks that are involved in managing that entire supply chain.
 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official]. 
 
To build off of what [senior administration official] was saying, you know, this really is a — this is not just a threat to North America, this is a global threat.  And this is why we are working not just with our Mexican and Canadian partners, but our global partners through the global coalition, as I mentioned previously. 
 
And we’ve also been working closely with the PRC.  As you all know, we recently resumed counternarcotics cooperation with the PRC, sent a delegation there just last week.  And Mexico is also engaging with the PRC and has sent a delegation there and is working closely with them on counternarcotics cooperation as well.
 
MODERATOR:  All right, thank you, everyone.  That’s all the time we have for today.  Thanks for joining us.  The embargo has now lifted.
 
Again, this call was on background, attributable to senior administration officials.  And we will try to get this joint communiqué on the TFC out as soon as possible and out to you guys. 
 
Thank you, and have a great day.

9:36 A.M. EST

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