Weekly Report - 09 March 2023 (WR-23-10)

MEXICO: Trying times for US-Mexico relations

Tensions over security and trade issues have flared up between Mexico and its northern neighbour in the past week. The kidnapping of four US citizens in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, on 3 March has been deemed “unacceptable” by the White House and prompted debate around potential US intervention in Mexican security matters. Meanwhile, the US has initiated proceedings under the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on regional trade on two separate issues. These incidents look set to test relations between the countries as both Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and US President Joe Biden face differing internal pressures.


The kidnapping of four US citizens in Matamoros has grabbed headlines worldwide. The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, confirmed the kidnapping on 6 March, saying that “unknown assailants” had “violently kidnapped at gunpoint four US citizens” in an incident in Matamoros in which an innocent Mexican citizen was also killed.

The next day, Mexico’s public security ministry (SSPC) confirmed the four US citizens had been found in a building in Matamoros. Two were dead. A man identified as José ‘N’, who was guarding the four, was arrested. Tamaulipas attorney general Irving Barrios Mojica said the incident was most likely a case of mistaken identity, rather than a direct attack, while adding that all lines of enquiry remained open. Although acknowledging that the Cártel del Golfo drug trafficking organisation (DTO) has a strong presence in the area, he did not confirm whether this group was responsible for the attack.

In a press conference the same day, President López Obrador expressed regret for the incident but stated that some were using it for “political ends”, saying the US media was handling the story in a sensationalist manner. He pointed out that such extensive coverage did not take place when Mexicans were killed in the US. He also reiterated that his government would not let any other country intervene in Mexican affairs.

Indeed, the incident has sparked talk from US Republicans in particular about taking a more direct approach to tackling organised crime south of the border. Two possible tactics that have resurfaced in recent days, namely designating Mexican DTOs as foreign terrorist organisations (a proposition first put forward by 21 Republican state attorneys general on 8 February) and using the US armed forces to combat DTOs in Mexico. This latter idea was first presented in a joint resolution by US Representatives Dan Crenshaw and Michael Waltz in January.

Salazar was much more reserved. He spoke of the “imperative need to act against the cartels”, saying that the control that the Cártel del Golfo exerted over Mexico’s north-eastern border region was of particular concern, and of the need to work closely with the Mexican government to prevent future violent incidents. As pressure rises on the Biden administration to combat violence at the border and, in particular, to stem the flow of fentanyl being brought into the US by Mexican DTOs, it remains to be seen whether the cooperative or hardline approach will win out.


An escalation in a long-running trade dispute between Mexico and the US also took place on 6 March. The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) announced it was requesting technical consultations under the USMCA in relation to “Mexican measures concerning products of agricultural biotechnology”.

Specifically, these consultations relate to Mexican plans to phase out imports of genetically modified (GM) yellow corn, which the US says will disrupt billions of dollars in agricultural trade. The request for consultations comes despite recent attempts by Mexico to dial down the restrictions. On 13 February, López Obrador published a decree stipulating that while GM corn could not be used in products for human consumption, it would be permitted for use as animal fodder and in industrial manufacturing of products not for human consumption such as cosmetics, textiles, footwear, paper, and construction materials. This decree rendered obsolete a previous one which had ordered the phasing out of the use and import of all GM products and the herbicide glyphosate by January 2024.

However, while recognising the “sustained, active engagement” from the Mexican government on the issue, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the US remained firm in its view that Mexico’s current biotechnology trajectory was not grounded in science, “which is the foundation of USMCA”.

López Obrador appears to be remaining firm in his view on the matter too. In a press conference on 7 March, he said that Mexico would continue to ban GM corn for human consumption while an agreement was being sought for Mexico’s federal sanitary protection agency (Cofepris) to work with a qualified US agency to analyse whether or not GM corn is harmful to health. If an agreement could not be reached in time, he said that Mexico was willing to go to a dispute consultation panel as “it is a very important issue for us…the health of our people”.

Terrorism in Mexico

In response to the proposal to designate Mexican DTOs as foreign terrorist organisations, President López Obrador pointed to the US Department of State’s 2021 report on terrorism, published on 27 February. The report stated that counterterrorism cooperation between Mexico and the US was strong in 2021 and that there was “no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the US in 2021”.

Another labour rights complaint

The US Department of Labour submitted a separate request under the USMCA on 6 March, asking for the Mexican government to review whether workers’ rights were being denied at the Unique Fabricating plastics plant in Querétaro state. This is the seventh such request made under USMCA’s Rapid Response Labour Mechanism (RRLM) and comes in response to a petition filed under USMCA by a workers’ union claiming the company was obstructing workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining.

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