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What does America's fentanyl problem mean for U.S.-Mexico relations?


That kidnapping of four Americans in a Mexican border town and the murder of two of them has not been good for U.S.-Mexico relations. Drug cartels are blamed for that violence. Now some members of Congress want the U.S. military to destroy Mexican drug labs. But Mexico's president blames America's fentanyl problem on the U.S. itself. Dan Restrepo worries about what this means for our relationship with Mexico. He advised President Obama on Latin American affairs. He's now at the Center for American Progress. Good morning, Dan. And thanks for waking up early for us.

DAN RESTREPO: Good morning. Good to be with you.

PFEIFFER: Dan, you have suggested that maybe we have taken for granted that Mexico will always basically be a stable neighbor, you know, that it's a border country that certainly has some problems, but that will mostly be a reliable democracy. But seeing those Americans, who were going down there for cosmetic surgery, caught in a shootout between drug cartels was very startling. What do you think that, those killings and the leadership style of Mexico's current president, means about whether we are taking our relationship with Mexico for granted?

RESTREPO: Well, we definitely take our relationship with Mexico for granted. It's one of our largest trading partners. There's a million legal border crossings every day, $1 billion in trade every day. It's kind of in the background for most Americans until something breaks through, something like the kidnappings in Matamoros last week, something like protests around democratic backsliding in Mexico. So we're at a critical moment in the U.S.-Mexico relationship where we need to take it more seriously. And we need to understand that things that we do in the United States have profound impacts on Mexico, and things that happen in Mexico have profound impacts on the United States, and treat the relationship accordingly.

PFEIFFER: And if we don't take it seriously and we continue to take it for granted, what kind of impacts could we see on trade, on tourism, on politics? What's the practical effect?

RESTREPO: I think negative practical effects kind of across the board, right? We have a number of trade disputes right now with Mexico on the importation by Mexico of corn from the United States that could hit farmers real hard. On energy companies, a bunch of renewable energy companies and investors from the United States in Mexico have been under attack by the current government in Mexico. And again, this is the No. 2 trading partner last year for the United States in the world. Previous year, it was No. 1. Every year since the 1980s, it's been in the top three. So every American is a stakeholder in the U.S.-Mexico relationship in multiple ways. And the things that corrode the relationship will appear in our supermarkets and in our politics and in day-to-day life pretty much unlike any other relationship that we have in the world right now.

PFEIFFER: On the issue of whether Mexico or the U.S. are more responsible for the U.S. fentanyl problem, the U.S. says the drugs mostly come from Mexico. But Mexico's president says it's due to American social decay. That's how he put it. What's your take on that blame game?

RESTREPO: The blame game is politics. The opioid crisis is a serious one that has profoundly and negatively affected millions of Americans - 100,000 overdose deaths last year alone. It's a crisis that began on prescription pads in the United States but now very much has a component that runs through Mexico. A lot of fentanyl is manufactured in Mexico with precursor chemicals from China. And others are trafficked through Mexico. So it's not an either/or. It's a both. There's responsibility on both sides of the border. But it's also important that politicians on both sides of the border treat this responsibly.

PFEIFFER: And when you say it's politics, do you mean that some people are using it to their advantage to play to the base?

RESTREPO: Oh, absolutely. Again, on both sides of the border. Mexico does a lot of work in American politics. And the United States does a fair amount of work in Mexican politics. And unfortunately, when we're in moments like the one we find ourselves in today, that political noise gets in the way of good decision-making and the hard policy choices that need to be made in both countries so that we can all be better off.

PFEIFFER: What advice would you give the Biden administration on how to strengthen the U.S. relationship with Mexico?

RESTREPO: Engagement, engagement, engagement and engagement beyond the current government. There are multiple stakeholders in Mexico that need the touch of the United States government and need kind of constant care and attention in a way that is difficult but absolutely necessary.

PFEIFFER: That's Dan Restrepo. He was an adviser to President Obama on Latin America and the Caribbean. And he is now with the Center for American Progress. Dan, thank you.

RESTREPO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.