(Bloomberg) -- Violence has rocked northern Mexico just days before a visit by US President Joe Biden, as the capture of an alleged drug lord left 29 soldiers and cartel members dead and put the sensitive issue of border security in the spotlight.
Thursday’s arrest of the son of infamous crime lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman shows Mexico’s willingness to take action after years of tense discussions with the US about the war on drugs. But the ensuing violence that has paralyzed parts of Sinaloa state into Friday also highlights the dire situation of the Mexican border — an issue the US was already keen to focus on in next week’s “Three Amigos” summit.
Mexico seemed to have “this tied-up-in-a-bow present” for the US and “all of a sudden you have a town in flames,” said Shannon K. O’Neill, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and Bloomberg Opinion columnist. “The backlash and violence is something that policymakers in the US are really concerned about as it demonstrates the real challenge that Mexico has.”
The long drug-war cooperation between the two countries has been deeply frayed under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who came to office promising a new strategy of “hugs not bullets.” Meanwhile, the fentanyl crisis, which contributed to more than 100,000 US drug overdose deaths last year, has moved the issue toward the top of US priorities in relations with its southern neighbor.
The Biden administration said Friday the topic was going to feature heavily at the talks next week, while thanking Mexico for the arrest.
“There’s going to be a lot of talk about this, and Mexico has already taken significant steps,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “That is not an insignificant accomplishment by Mexican authorities and we’re certainly grateful for that.”
Mexico will hope to use the arrest as a bargaining chip, which potentially “defuses the power behind any ask from the Biden administration to stem the tide of fentanyl and other narcotics,” said Syracuse University Professor Gladys McCormick, who researches US-Mexico relations and drug trafficking.
But violence persisted through the night in the city of Culiacan following the arrest of Ovidio Guzman, considered one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel that allegedly fuels narcotics into the US, Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval said on Friday. He confirmed the death toll, including 10 military officials, but said no civilians were killed.
While the US will try to use the arrest as a starting point for a new relationship after cooperation has fallen apart in several areas, the government is unlikely to be optimistic, O’Neill said. “Multiple parts of the US government are frustrated with the lack of interest in security issues under the AMLO administration, so there’s always hope but experience tells them that we’re unlikely to see a sea change in last two years” of his presidency, she said, referring to the president by his initials.
The capture could also stoke further diplomatic tensions, as Lopez Obrador said his extradition won’t be fast tracked since it has to follow due judicial process. The US requested Guzman’s arrest in 2019, which Mexico duly delivered, before having to release him days later as the situation in Culiacan got out of control.
Read More: ‘El Chapo’ Son Held in Mexico Drug Case as Violence Engulfs City
A Mexican district judge put a temporary pause on Guzman’s extradition Friday, local media reported, raising the specter of a potentially fraught and drawn-out process, said Veronica Ortiz, a foreign policy expert and columnist in Mexico City.
“I’m not sure the US would be happy” with the idea of Guzman staying in jail for months or even longer, especially given his father’s legacy of escaping Mexican lockups, Ortiz said.
The US hasn’t requested extra security for the summit, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Friday, despite the violence that followed Guzman’s arrest and that included shootings, road blockades, looting and even a commercial airliner taking gunfire.
The talks, which include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are set to focus on a range of political and economic issues, with Mexico looking for support in developing its clean energy and semiconductor industries.
Read More: AMLO to Ask Biden for Energy, Semiconductor Support at Summit
--With assistance from Josh Wingrove.
(Retops story, adds US comment and analyst quote)
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