US lawmakers: López Obrador committed to engage with China on fentanyl

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told U.S. lawmakers over the weekend that he would personally work with China to quell trans-Pacific shipments of fentanyl precursors that are processed into the deadly drug in Mexico, according to two of the American representatives.

The commitment was made in a long meeting in Mexico City over the weekend, where López Obrador discussed an array of issues with a bipartisan group of eight senators and four House members.

“One of the interesting parts is he agreed to meet with China on how they could prevent getting some of the raw materials, the precursors, from China,” Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) told The Hill.

“So that in itself acknowledges the fact that China is sending these things through, mainly through Manzanillo and some of the ports on that side of Mexico.”

A Mexican official said the meeting was respectful and constructive but did not confirm the specific claim.

López Obrador tweeted Sunday evening that “several topics were dealt with in mutual respect and to benefit our peoples.”

His comments to the lawmakers come after weeks of cross-border bickering over issues tied to the fentanyl trade, including a Republican proposal to label Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

That proposal piqued the famously irascible López Obrador, setting off a back-and-forth with GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), a key proponent of the terrorist designation.

But beyond the public-facing incendiary rhetoric, López Obrador has been quietly meeting with U.S. lawmakers for policy discussions.

He had last met with a bipartisan delegation on Feb. 20, which he followed up with the larger meeting over the weekend.

The delegation this weekend included Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), as well as Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Gonzales, Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.).

Though an array of topics from energy policy to cross-border trade and agricultural policy were discussed, two lawmakers who spoke to The Hill were particularly struck by the Mexican president’s quick pledge to engage with China on fentanyl.

“For him to say, ‘I will formally ask China, request China to stop sending fentanyl’ — because we’re talking about precursors, and he said for sending fentanyl to Mexico — all of us just kind of looked at each other and the ambassador,” Cuellar said.

“Afterwards we spoke and we said, ‘Hey, that’s very significant.'”

López Obrador’s pledge to stop precursors was seen as an implicit recognition that clandestine labs run by drug cartels play a key role in producing the fentanyl that is feeding the opioid crisis in U.S. communities.

“He had the military there and other folks and [talked about] how they’ve gone after those labs. So we did talk about fentanyl a lot. But one of the things that we pushed them on was that those precursors were coming in from China,” said Cuellar.

“And then he turned around and he said very specifically said, ‘I will talk to China about the precursors coming into the United States.'”

That recognition is significant because López Obrador’s official stance has been that no such labs exist in Mexican territory.

“National security authorities have no record of fentanyl production in Mexico, but they place our country as a traffic zone for that opioid and its precursors, which come mostly from Asia,” read a press release by the country’s foreign ministry last week.

The refusal to publicly recognize the existence of drug labs — even as they’ve been independently documented and as Mexican security services expend significant resources to combat them — could be part of an internal political environment that rewards López Obrador for confrontational bursts against the United States.

Those flourishes and López Obrador’s tendency to filibuster potentially confrontational events were at the center of members’ concerns ahead of the meeting.

“I was a little, I wouldn’t say skeptical but unsure of how valuable the meeting was going to be,” Gonzales said.

“And it turned out to be, we had a four-hour discussion and then we had an hour and a half lunch afterwards. And it was candid. I mean, I didn’t always get the answers that I wanted and sometimes you had to press, ask questions several different ways. But they didn’t shy away from anything, and it was a dialogue,” he added.

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