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A New Path Uphill

Celina B. Realuyo

This essay is part of the Reimagining the Future of U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation Roundtable. Read the other essays here.

U.S.-Mexican security cooperation under the AMLO and Biden Administrations will be a formidable challenge due to the deteriorating bilateral relations and mistrust regarding the issue of combating transnational organized crime. The recent return of former Mexican Minister of Defense General Salvador Cienfuegos from the U.S. to Mexico, Mexico’s decision not to investigate him and release the U.S. indictment against him, and the newly enacted Mexican National Security Act that imposes serious restrictions on foreign agents conducting investigations in Mexico threaten bilateral collaboration. Under the new law, Mexican officials must request prior permission to meet with their foreign counterparts, and foreign agents must share all information gathered in Mexico with the government. This will greatly hinder the counter-crime investigations and operations of U.S. law enforcement agencies, most notably the DEA, ATF and CBP and ICE in Mexico.

These bilateral tensions come at a critical time as violence and homicide rates in Mexico remain close to record highs at 34,515 in 2020 and narcotics and human trafficking continue to threaten U.S. and Mexican security and prosperity. Despite the COVID-19 lockdowns, closed borders and paralyzed international trade and travel, Mexican cartels remain active, trafficking lethal drugs like fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine into the United States. Transnational criminal organizations have adapted quickly to the new COVID environment. These groups are consolidating control of trafficking routes and markets and winning hearts and minds by providing COVID-related social services to marginalized communities in Mexico. Once the lockdowns and border restrictions in the U.S. are lifted, a surge in drug trafficking and migration activity destined for the U.S. is expected. This climate will make it difficult to build trust and mutual cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico in the face of transnational criminal organizations presenting a grave threat to the security of both countries.

  • The Biden Administration will need to invest in confidence-building measures with Mexico and identify areas of mutual interest in the security arena; possible areas for collaboration include: combating the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing Central American mass migration, investigating financial crimes and building institutional capacity.

  • Combating the COVID-19 pandemic is the top priority for both the Biden and AMLO Administrations. Therefore, both countries can leverage their security forces to distribute personal protective equipment, ventilators, test kits, therapeutics and vaccines in Mexico and maintain law and order in the face of social protests.

  • As Central American migrants waiting to cross into the U.S. represent a burden to the Mexican government, the U.S. and Mexico should work together to mitigate the socio-economic “push” factors in Central America through joint foreign assistance and increased border security programs. President Biden has appointed Roberta Jacobson, former Ambassador to Mexico and Assistant Secretary of State as his coordinator for border issues at the National Security Council. Her deep knowledge and experience of Mexico and security issues will be great assets during this challenging time in bilateral relations.

  • Both countries share an interest in pursuing those who finance transnational organized crime, terrorism and corruption, as money serves as the oxygen for all these illicit activities. The use of financial intelligence has been critical in detecting and dismantling criminal organizations and political corruption. Financial investigations could serve as an opportunity for bilateral cooperation.

The U.S. should continue its foreign assistance programs dedicated to institutional capacity building of the judicial system and training of local and state police forces if Mexico is amenable.

The Biden Administration faces an uphill battle in re-establishing close bilateral relations with Mexico on the law enforcement front at this time. While this is not the first instance of bilateral tensions on security issues, it will be imperative to cultivate different ways forward to promote the security and prosperity of the U.S. and Mexico.


Celina B. Realuyo is Professor of Practice at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric and Defense Studies at National Defense University, in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.


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