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Editorial

Focus on immigration shifts attention from a more serious problem — cartels

Policemen stand next to a burnt vehicle after heavily armed gunmen waged an all-out battle against Mexican security forces in Culiacán, Sinaloa state, Mexico, on Oct. 18.
Policemen stand next to a burnt vehicle after heavily armed gunmen waged an all-out battle against Mexican security forces in Culiacán, Sinaloa state, Mexico, on Oct. 18.ALFREDO ESTRELLA /AFP via Getty Images

Mexican drug cartels murder Americans, corrupt governments, and spread human misery. They are, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, “the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.”

And now the United States is putting enormous pressure on the government of Mexico finally to do something about . . . migrants.

Official Washington is obsessed with impeachment. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s obsession with preventing immigrants from reaching the United States is creating serious problems in Mexico, forcing the country to divert resources from the far more important work of combating cartels.

The explanation in the shift is simple: Stymied in his effort to build an actual wall at the border, President Trump is prodding Mexico to use its limited police capabilities to turn itself into a virtual wall.

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A radical set of changes in US immigration rules went into effect in January that have required Mexico to play host to hundreds of thousands of US-bound asylum seekers — as many as 50,000 of them according to some reports. The new rules — known as the Migrant Protection Protocols or Remain in Mexico policy — mandate that migrants must now wait on the Mexican side of the border for their asylum hearings. Then, threatening trade tariffs if Mexico didn’t comply, the administration pressured the government this summer into ramping up enforcement of its border with Guatemala in order to prevent migrants from entering Mexico in their quest to reach the US border with asylum claims.

Mexico has proved to be woefully underprepared for the task, and the new dynamic has drained its government of important resources. For instance, Mexico has had to redirect a third of its newly created national police force of 60,000 members — originally established to fight high-levels of crime — to patrol its borders and assist in the deportation of asylum seekers, some of whom are coming from nontraditional countries of origin like Cameroon, Angola, and India.

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Mexicans are paying a big price for this shift. So will Americans. Consider what happened recently in the Mexican city of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, birthplace of the mighty Sinaloa Cartel . Mexican authorities were forced to release a son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — the former leader of the cartel who is now serving a life sentence in a US maximum security prison — after being outgunned and overpowered in a dramatic battle that kept the city under siege for hours.

Pictures and videos showed a war zone. It was a striking display of force by the cartel, even for a country where citizens are no strangers to such types of violence and lawlessness. The city’s residents were left terrorized. Amid the panic and chaos, 30 inmates escaped from a local jail. At least eight people were killed in the operation, including a civilian.

The decision to release El Chapo’s son was approved by the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “The capture of one criminal cannot be worth more than the lives of people,” he said. López Obrador has been heavily criticized for the botched operation, and for his broader public safety strategy to fight the cartels, dubbed “Abrazos, no balazos” — “Hugs, not bullets.” Perhaps he deserves it; a cartel forcing a government into surrender in such a dramatic and public way sets a dangerous precedent. Certainly the Mexican government bears primary responsibility for the fiasco.

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But the Culiacán events didn’t occur in a vacuum. Trump has bullied Mexico into serving as an enforcement branch of its harsh anti-immigrant policies. Redeploying the Mexican national police to function as a mini-ICE has a significant public safety impact in Mexico.

The emphasis on migrants and asylum seekers is shifting focus from organized crime, which the United States has long recognized as a huge transnational problem. Since 2007, the US has provided roughly $2 billion in aid to Mexico to crack down on drug cartels.

The United States insists that it has not retreated from aiding Mexico with its war on drugs. A senior official with the State Department told The Wall Street Journal last week that the government has continued to support Mexico on many fronts: police reform, the judiciary, and money laundering.

But Mexico has only so many soldiers and police officers, and the new asylum rules and the enforcement agreement Trump strong-armed Mexico into signing have put lives at risk: the lives of asylum seekers being forced to wait in a country that does not have the institutional capacity to handle them; the lives of Mexican citizens who are left vulnerable because their own government is busy doing Trump’s bidding; and the lives of Americans, who won’t escape the consequences if violent drug cartels flourish.

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