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

Five men with links to Mexican drug cartels have been accused of kidnapping and murdering five Americans last month in Matamoros, but this incident has done little to put out the flaming tensions between the United States and Mexico.

Some members of Congress have called for the U.S. military to destroy Mexican drug labs in order to rid the state of drug cartels. But Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, blames America's fentanyl problem on the U.S. itself, saying that it's an issue of American "social decay."

Dan Restrepo, a former advisor to President Obama on Latin American affairs and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress is concerned that these kinds of comments will do more damage than lawmakers think. Restrpo spoke to NPR's Sacha Pieffer about the importance of stabilizing U.S-Mexico relations.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On taking the United States relationship with Mexico for granted

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.

The effects of losing Mexico as a trading partner

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.

On the "blame game" for the opioid crisis

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.

On the best way to strengthen US-Mexico relations

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. 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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