Biden has a chance to push back against Mexico’s anti-democratic turn. Will he take it?

President Joe Biden and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shake hands at the National Palace in Mexico City on January 9. | Fernando Llano/AP

For Biden, a historic border crisis, surging fentanyl deaths, and Mexico’s eroding democratic institutions are all interrelated problems.

When President Joe Biden arrived in Mexico City on Monday, it was less than a day after right-wing followers of the former Brazilian president stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace. Less than a week before, a wave of violence engulfed a Mexican state after the country’s military arrested Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the head of the Sinaloa cartel.

So while trade, drugs, and immigration are the dominant themes of this week’s summit of North American leaders (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also participating), there was a lot more at issue in the talks, which continued Tuesday. The state of democracy in the Americas, the rule of law in Mexico, and the power of drug cartels form an additional backdrop that both Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, both had to reckon with.

These issues might seem like distant foreign policy topics to the average American, but each challenge is intertwined with the US’s immigration crisis. And though it might not seem to matter to daily life in the US, these issues have visible trickle-down effects (drug overdoses, increased migration, and the domestic politics of immigration), and not-so-visible ones (the strength of democracy here and in our hemisphere).

The meetings come at an awkward but consequential moment for Biden. With an election year looming and a Republican majority in the House, Biden is confronting a historic migrant crisis at the border and Republican scrutiny, a near-record number of overdose deaths in the US, largely driven by fentanyl from Mexico, and the erosion of democratic norms in Mexico, and the Americas in general.

The stakes of Biden and López Obrador’s meetings

The two presidents already met on Monday to talk about strengthening supply chains, curbing migration, and stopping the flow of fentanyl into the US, and will be joined by Trudeau Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that although there would be focus on “broader law enforcement cooperation,” the climate crisis, and health, it is “migration, fentanyl, and integrated supply chains and the increased strength of North America’s manufacturing and innovation powerhouse in critical sectors, including in the clean energy sector” that are Biden’s greatest areas of focus.

That’s no surprise, given the record number of border crossings in the US last year and the increased flow of drugs like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, into the United States. Biden’s trip to Mexico City comes after the president visited the US-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas on Sunday, and after his administration expanded rules for removing migrants from the US under Title 42, a controversial public health code used by the Trump administration expel migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum in the US.

Mexican officials are quick to point out that of those record numbers of crossings happening, a majority are from non-Mexican migrants — usually from Central and South America, where political instability, poverty, and persecution from organized crime have caused people to leave.

Coincidentally, Biden is also in Mexico a few days after Mexico’s military arrested Guzmán — who the US accuses of being a high-ranking member of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, and an instrumental part of the movement of fentanyl into the US. The movement of fentanyl into the US is one of the country’s biggest national security threats: fentanyl-related overdoses are the leading cause of death of Americans 18-49. Two-thirds of the more than 100,000 Americans who died from drug overdoses between 2021 and 2022 were killed by fentanyl; and combined with the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the synthetic opioid has driven down American life expectancy to the lowest it’s been since 1996.

Guzmán’s arrest prompted violent clashes between cartel members and the Mexican military in the state of Sinaloa last week. The massive show of force from the cartel, which took over the state’s three largest cities, shot at military and civilian planes, seized airports, and killed nearly 30 Mexican soldiers, shows the staying power of transnational criminal organizations in Mexico.

Though Mexican officials say that the raid to capture Guzmán was not timed to the leaders’ summit, it still serves as a signal to the Biden administration and Congress that Mexico can still be a partner in fighting drug trafficking and cartels, experts say. Despite López Obrador’s hands-off approach to dealing with cartels — he famously endorsed a “hugs, not bullets” policy to focus on social welfare programs to stop root causes — the last two significant drug lord arrests have happened in the weeks before meetings with Biden.

But both the drug and migration issues show some of the limits of Biden’s visit: These are interconnected problems with inherent human rights concerns and which are necessarily related to the state of democracy in the Americas. While López Obrador was quick to condemn the actions of rioters in Brazil, he’s been less willing to accept criticism for his own attacks on journalists in Mexico, his efforts to reform the country’s independent electoral commission, and his militarization of the country through the new national guard (that he formed). All of these amount to a slow-burning anti-democratic campaign to consolidate power in the executive branch, challenge the independence of other branches of government, and silence critics — the kinds of actions that create social instability and break down trust in institutions.

“Biden won’t say anything as he struck an implicit Trump-like deal in exchange for AMLO stopping migration,” one Mexican journalist said this week, echoing the feeling of many Mexican reporters and media commentators. The erosion of democratic norms in Mexico and the rest of the Americas isn’t specifically on the agenda of items the leaders will discuss, despite calls from congressional leaders, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (who asked the Biden administration to raise these concerns with López Obrador) and human rights organizations. But the chances of Biden publicly criticizing López Obrador are low, Andrew Rudman, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center think tank, told me.

“If he says anything publicly, it just creates conflict, because López Obrador will reject it, he’ll say, ‘How dare you,’ and that won’t get anything accomplished,” Rudman said. “But President Biden should say these things matter. I certainly hope that the president makes clear that folks in the States are absolutely watching what happens and are concerned and do want to be helpful, but also see that weakening of democracy and weakening of safety can have a negative impact on the Mexican economy and on the trilateral desire to promote North America as a strong, vibrant region.”

Previous attempts by US officials to highlight concerns with violence and impunity in Mexico have prompted harsh responses from López Obrador: Nearly a year ago, he called Secretary of State Antony Blinken “misinformed” for expressing concerns over the murder of journalists. And the Mexican president lashed out at US lawmakers and Biden for a report that the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act called for the US to examine “any changes in Mexico’s electoral and democratic institutions.”

“How can you say you’re a vibrant democracy, if your people don’t believe that you have free and fair elections? It should come up,” Rudman said. “It’s a long-held American value to support democracy and for President Biden to not express support for that value with President López Obrador would be a missed opportunity.”

For his part, on Monday evening, Biden did allude to continuing “to support and build democratic institutions in the hemisphere” before his bilateral meeting with AMLO.

Tied to that imperative to defend democracy is Mexico making progress on economic development and impunity for cartels. More than 90 percent of murders in Mexico are not solved, including the vast majority of cartel-related violence. The arrest of Guzmán has won Mexico some credibility in addressing some of those root causes for violence and migration, but more work remains to be done to convince the US that it is actually trying to dismantle these criminal networks. That part depends on Mexico — and its North American partners can help — and will have lasting effects on Americans and how we conduct our politics, too.

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