EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Drug Enforcement Administration agents tasked with combating in their own turf Mexican drug cartels sending fentanyl by the ton to the United States are waiting up to eight months to get their work visas.

This week’s revelation during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., prompted members to question Mexico’s commitment to stem the northward flow of the synthetic drug that figured in the overdose deaths of at least 70,000 Americans last year.

“When the DEA encounters obstacles such as difficulties in obtaining visas in a timely manner to operate in Mexico and there are outstanding warrants the Mexican government fails to act upon, it suggests the state of our relationship with Mexico may be far from ideal,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rodgers, R-Kentucky, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science.

Added U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, “This is where the rubber hits the road when we talk about the distribution of fentanyl into this country. It’s coming from China, it’s going to Mexico, it’s coming here and it’s killing our kids. Mexico is delaying work visas to American DEA agents working in Mexico to get after the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels.”

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram confirmed to subcommittee members on Tuesday that 13 agents and intelligence analysts assigned to track the two transnational criminal organizations the agency has identified as the main exporters of fentanyl to the U.S. are still waiting for a green light from Mexico to enter the country.

“We are committed to working shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone across the globe who will work with DEA in partnership on this fight,” she told the subcommittee. “I thought (FBI) director (Christopher) Wray said very well when he said the cooperation has been uneven, that we need to do much more and I would echo that.

“We are waiting for those 13 visas; I believe one has been pending for eight months. Unfortunately, we know the price that we pay as a country when we wait that long.”

The DEA has agents assigned to several countries around the world, but Mexico is a key player not just in stemming the flow of fentanyl, but also a myriad of other illicit substances like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.

“This lack of engagement, the nonsensical bureaucratic delay in approving visas and blatantly ignoring extradition requests for cartel members should be far from pleasing for anyone who cares about our efforts to counter the cartels,” Rodgers said at the hearing.

Milgram said agents would continue to build cases against transnational criminal organizations exporting fentanyl to the U.S. regardless of where the agents are. This includes identifying Asian companies supplying precursor chemicals, Mexican drug traffickers running fentanyl production labs and individuals and institutions all over the world laundering profits.

El Paso to play bigger role in global narcotics interdiction

Subcommittee member U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, pressed the DEA about its commitment to expand state and local law enforcement partnerships to combat fentanyl trafficking and distribution.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Milgram reinforced her commitment to local drug task forces.

She said the federal government is bringing a new, next-generation multi-agency task force to the border to combat the cartels.

The new Trident Directorate will operate out of El Paso and New York City and its priority will be combating fentanyl.

“As we stand up these Trident teams — one is being stood up along the border — we are going to use our El Paso office because we have great capacity there, and one is going to be set up in New York,” she informed the subcommittee. “These will be state, local, federal teams that also have the intelligence community and the defense community. That is one of the examples of evolving to the next step where we will be able to use every piece of information the DEA has to target this international threat.”

According to a document Milgram submitted to the subcommittee, Trident members will engage in data-mapping and information sharing with multiple U.S. law enforcement agencies, the military and intelligence community.

Last summer, Milgram also announced that the federal government was bringing a joint lab to the El Paso Intelligence Center in Fort Bliss, Texas, to track drugs seized along the border to individual cartels. The lab is also meant to alert law enforcement agencies of novel illicit and potentially deadly synthetic drugs.