Bogotá + Mexico City + Tabasco
Each time I take a major trip abroad in my role as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I write a behind-the-scenes summary of my trip to share with my supporters and followers. It’s a selfish exercise because the act of putting my thoughts about the trip into writing helps crystallize the
Last week, I led a trip to Colombia and Mexico with two House members, Representative Jesús “Chuy” García from Chicago and Representative Cori Bush from St. Louis. The purpose of my trip was to get a
first-hand look at three crises that are facing the United States. First, the flow of drugs — especially fentanyl — across the Mexican border into the U.S.; second, the huge increase in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border; and three, the flow of guns moving from the United States into Mexico, which fuels the first two crises. As the Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, I am in charge of writing the budget that funds our border operations, so it’s my job to be on top of the work
we need to do to address these three major challenges.
On Monday afternoon, our delegation boarded a plane to Bogotá, Colombia, arriving in the high-elevation capital around 9 pm. We were met at the airport by Francisco “Paco” Palmieri, a nimble, experienced Latin America expert who was sent by President Biden to Colombia to head up the embassy
until a permanent Ambassador is named. I grabbed a ride with him to our hotel and he proudly told me that he grew up in New Haven, worked for former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, and still gets back to
the state often. What a nice surprise! Over a late dinner at the hotel, Paco told our delegation about the critical importance of our visit.
Just weeks earlier, Gustavo Petro had been sworn in as the new President of Colombia. Petro is like the Bernie Sanders of Colombia, and his election was a shock to the system. Often, in Latin America, the parties on the left of the political spectrum are more skeptical of (or sometimes hostile to) the United
States, and given Colombia’s importance to the U.S., in these early days of Petro’s Administration it was critical for American leaders to do outreach to the new Colombian leader.
Colombia is important to the U.S. for a few reasons. First, (1) almost all of the cocaine trade to the U.S. starts in Colombia. Second, it sits as the gateway to South American trade for U.S. companies. Finally, Colombia shares a long border and history with currently the most vexing nation in South America, oil-rich Venezuela. Petro is skeptical that the conventional “war on drugs” has any hope of being won. He favors economic development for regions that produce cocaine, not confrontation and crop eradication, and he favors legalizing cocaine. This puts him at odds with U.S. policy, and our job was to start the process of finding a common ground.
On Tuesday morning, we met with the team at the U.S. embassy to get a fuller brief of U.S.-Colombian issues, and then did some inter-parliamentary diplomacy, meeting with the Presidents of the Colombian Senate and House. We were scheduled to see Petro around 11 am and then do a separate meeting with his Defense Minister. But right before the meeting with Petro, we got word that the President wanted his entire national security cabinet in the meeting with him. This left a big hole in our schedule, but it was proof that in these early days that Petro, who has never conducted executive diplomacy before, is feeling his way through structure and protocol.
In the meeting, Petro opened with a 40-minute monologue (not uncommon for foreign heads of state, I’ve found), focused on his commitment to fighting climate change and his early thoughts on a new counter-narcotics strategy. It was promising that he led with the issue of climate — we took it as a sign to
us that there are still many important issues for our two countries to work on together. When he got to narcotics, there was one point he repeated over and over: knowing we were going to Mexico next, he wanted to make sure we knew that cocaine (the product produced in Colombia) was killing far fewer
Americans than fentanyl (the product produced in Mexico). It was his way of reminding us that the international drug economy no longer simply revolves around Colombia.
Republicans in Washington have tried to make Petro out to be some Huge Chavez clone — a socialist anti-democrat. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and our meeting confirmed this. Petro wants to make both democracy and capitalism work better by ensuring that government is not just a vehicle for the enrichment of the elites. I told him not to listen to his right-wing critics in Congress. I also told him that his argument that the war on drugs had failed was persuasive to me and that he would have allies in Congress if he wanted to reform the Colombia-U.S. partnership to focus on the root causes of cocaine
Later in the day, we met with the history-making new Vice President of Colombia, Francia Márquez, the first Afro-Colombian Vice-President. Only 40 years old and a citizen activist before running for office, Márquez was impressive. None of her three staff (two female and one male), sitting on either side of her looked to be older than her, and it was a clear sign that a new generation of leaders is ready to take over in Bogotá.
Sometimes congressional delegation trips get caught in foreign policy sandstorms. As we arrived in Mexico City, our plan was to meet with the populist President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known by his initials, “AMLO”). But we learned that AMLO was giving the cold shoulder to the U.S. because of a new trade dispute between our two countries over AMLO’s efforts to push private companies out of Mexico’s energy markets. While we received no official reason for the President’s refusal to meet with our delegation, we got the hint.
Nevertheless, we had a series of really helpful meetings, including a long session with the Mexican Foreign Secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, and a nearly two-hour meeting with the leadership of the Mexican Senate. Very much like the new Petro government in Colombia, the López Obrador government wants to deemphasize law enforcement, and step up economic development efforts, in the counter-drug effort. The problem in Mexico, though, is that the drug trade has transformed in recent years. Today, fentanyl production is growing rapidly, and because of the simply chemical production process and the drug’s high potency, its footprint is much smaller and harder to root out.
Our impression in meeting with Mexican leaders was that their government has simply not done enough to go after the fentanyl producers and traffickers, and we told them so. But the frustration goes both ways. Mexico’s leaders told us that the impunity of the drug gangs is due, in part, to the unending flow
of military-style weapons from the United States. There is only one gun store in all of Mexico, and gun ownership is effectively illegal. So it’s not surprising that 70% of guns used in crimes in the country were bought in the United States and illegally shipped to Mexico.
I have plans to change this. The bipartisan gun safety bill that passed Congress this summer includes the first-ever federal criminalization of gun trafficking. And as Chairman of the Homeland Security budget sub-committee, I am planning on putting new money in next year’s budget to check more traffic moving into Mexico for firearms contraband. My conversations with Mexican leaders made this funding even more important to me.
At the meeting with the Mexican Senate, I got myself in some trouble with my staff. I had been told heading into the meeting that the leaders of the Senate were very interested in a formal inter-parliamentary exchange with the U.S. Senate, with a schedule of regular visits. Since there’s only a handful of U.S. Senators who spend a good deal of time on matters of foreign policy, and we have limited staff resources to organize such efforts, these exchanges are hard to pull off. But when the charismatic Mexican Senate President, RicardoMonreal, raised the request in our meeting, apparently I gave the impression that I was willing to host a big Mexican Senate delegation in Washington.
“Do you know how much work this is going to be? Not for you, but for us?” asked one of my foreign policy staffers on the way back to the hotel.
“Did I commit to it? I didn’t think I committed to it!” I said.
A U.S. embassy staff piped in. “Well, I’m already seeing e-mail traffic from the Mexicans saying they’re coming in October.”
To be honest, it would be a very worthwhile effort. There should be much more dialogue between the United States and Mexico, and I sheepishly asked my team exactly how much work would be required to pull it off. I told them we could put off making a final decision until we got back to Washington.
I felt like it was important to get down to Mexico’s southern border to better understand the root causes of the massive number of migrants showing up without documentation at our nation’s southern border. We went to the state of Tabasco, which shares a border with Guatemala, and sat down to meet with the Governor and his top team. They told us that the most important thing the United States could do to slow migration was to help states like Tabasco grow their economies. The Governor told us fewer Mexicans would flee to the United States, and more Central American migrants would remain in Mexico, if economic conditions weren’t so desperate in southern Mexico.
“You can’t solve this just with more enforcement,” Governor Carlos Manuel Merino Campos told us. After this meeting, our delegation went to a migrant shelter in Tabasco’s capital of Villahermosa. What an impactful visit. We talked with several migrants and migrant families, and each of their stories
illustrated the complex challenge of immigration.
Vany had two of her four young children hanging onto her lower leg as she fought back tears telling us of her escape from her small town in Honduras. “The mara (drug gang) came into our town and told us that if we didn’t pay they would kill us. We didn’t have the money so we had to leave.”
I asked her why they didn’t just move somewhere else in Honduras, so as to stay close to family. “It’s the same everywhere,” she said. “What if I move all my kids somewhere else, and the mara comes there too?” Vany then told us that she didn’t have enough money to get to the U.S. border, so her plan was to stay in Mexico and hope that a relative who lived close by would put her and her kids up for a little while.
Later, a young man grabbed my arm. His name was Gabriel and he spoke fluent English. He seemed bright and enterprising, the kind of person who would thrive anywhere in the world. He had left Venezuela months ago, fleeing violence and a hopeless economic future. For the time being, he was
staying in Mexico with his parents, but his goal was to get to the United States.
If Gabriel makes it, he will be part of a giant migration of Venezuelans to the United States right now — this wave of Venezuelans showing up at our southern border is a big part of the reason the number of crossings is so
high this year.
As we walked out, we passed a table where children were doing arts and crafts. I noticed that several of the children were painting small Honduran flags. Clearly, these children, in the middle of a harrowing, dangerous journey to the United States, were still so attached to their home. So was Vany. It was
heartbreaking for her to leave. She only did so to save the lives of her children.
America must have an immigration system based on laws and rules. What is happening today, with unpredictable, record numbers of migrants coming to our border, is unsustainable. But it is important to remember that there is a story behind every decision to come to America. And as I left the shelter, it
was hard for me to understand why America cannot find a way to be strong enough and compassionate enough to save people like Vany and Gabriel.
On Saturday morning, we awoke to news that our flight back to the United States was delayed by five hours. It gave me enough time to hustle to a crafts market in Mexico City to buy a few gifts for my oldest son, due to turn 14 the following week. As we boarded the plane, I was so glad I made this trip. My
traditional focus on the Foreign Relations Committee has been the Middle East and Europe, but for America, foreign relations must start with our neighbors. This trip, for me, was long overdue.
Every best wish,