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Republican lawmakers in the US reacted with anger on Friday after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his country played a minor role in the fentanyl crisis that kills thousands of Americans each year.
“It is clear that the President of Mexico does not care that 70,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses in America last year,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) in an interview with NPR.
“He allows his border to be controlled by the cartels and he doesn’t care.”
In a lengthy press conference on Thursday, López Obrador debated whether Mexico plays an important role in illicit fentanyl trafficking.
“Here, we don’t produce fentanyl, and we don’t have fentanyl consumption,” López Obrador said.
He also blamed the overdose crisis in the US on “social decay” in American society.
“We are deeply saddened by what is happening in the United States – but why are they not fighting the problem … and more importantly why are they not taking care of their youth?”
But most drug policy experts and US Drug Enforcement Administration officials said there is no doubt that Mexican drug cartels are fueling the explosion of deadly fentanyl on America’s streets.
US law enforcement officials say in recent years, Mexican officials have refused to cooperate with efforts to target fentanyl labs inside Mexico.
“We don’t get information on fentanyl seizures; we don’t get information on seizures of precursor chemicals,” DEA chief Anne Milgram said at a Senate hearing last month.
Obrador’s comments follow calls for military action by GOP lawmakers
In recent days, Republican lawmakers have suggested that with the death toll so dire, the US military should play a role inside Mexico to help disrupt traffickers and drug gangs.
“We’re going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (Republican – SC) at a press conference on Wednesday.
Republicans have also called for the US to designate drug cartels as international terrorist organizations.
In his press conference on Thursday, López Obrador derided those proposals as “Robocop” and “authoritarian” thinking.
He said the US military presence inside his country represented an unacceptable violation of Mexican sovereignty.
“We want to be clear about our position,” López Obrador said. “We will not allow any foreign government, let alone foreign armed forces, to mingle on our territory.”
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In a statement sent to NPR Friday afternoon, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the Biden administration is not “considering military action in Mexico.”
Watson said the US and Mexico will “continue to work on this problem together,” adding the two countries have “strong law enforcement cooperation.”
But while López Obrador has repeatedly singled out Republican proposals for criticism, his comments also appear to have put him at odds with the Biden administration.
US officials have repeatedly urged Mexico to do more to target fentanyl and methamphetamine labs and cartel operations.
Just a few hours before the president of Mexico spoke, US Ambassador Ken Salazar tweeted that the two countries “should coordinate efforts against the illicit production and trafficking of fentanyl.”
In recent days, the Biden administration has begun rolling out more high-tech surveillance equipment at border crossings designed to detect fentanyl.
During his state of the union address, Biden also called for a “surge” along the US-Mexico border to reduce fentanyl trafficking.
A call for the US to disrupt fentanyl trafficking even as it affects relations with Mexico
But there are many drug policy experts ask if any of these steps will significantly reduce the presence of fentanyl on America’s streets.
Most fentanyl enters through legal ports of entrysmuggled into the approximately 70 million cars and trucks that cross the border each year.
Detecting and stopping drug shipments hidden in that traffic is a daunting challenge.
It is also unclear whether the Mexican government has the firepower and institutional strength to fight the cartels, which are heavily armed and well organized.
The depth of the problem was illustrated only last month, when the The US has prosecuted a former top Mexican law enforcement officialGenaro Garcia Luna.
Garcia Luna was a trusted partner of the US in the fight against drugs for many years but it turned out that he was working for one of the main cartels.
However, with fentanyl deaths high, there is pressure on Washington, DC, to do something to disrupt fentanyl trafficking, even if it also means disrupting trade and diplomatic relations with Mexico.
“If it means we have to slow down Southern border crossings, we have to slow down Southern border crossings,” said Sen. Scott.
“They are killing our children. So if that means we do less trade with Mexico, we do less trade with Mexico.”
The digital story was edited by Maquita Peters.