Editor's note: Heather A. Lowe is legal counsel and director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.
(CNN) -- The United States has a strong national interest in economic, political and civil stability in Mexico. Its war against transnational drug cartels has dramatically highlighted Mexico's problems, but the truth is that the nation has had deep, unsolved, structural problems in its economy and an opaque international financial system for decades.
Global Financial Integrity's report on Mexico found that $872 billion in illicit finances left the country from 1970 through 2010. Although some laundered drug money may be included in that figure, it overwhelmingly represents tax evasion by both domestic and multinational corporations doing business in Mexico, as well as corruption, kickbacks and bribery from wealthy Mexican public officials and business leaders.
Evidence in the report suggests that much of this illicit money ends up in the United States. Illicit flows, through a phenomenon known as trade mispricing, dramatically increased after the North American Free Trade Agreement was established, and have remained high. Bank deposit data from the Bank of International Settlements show that the United States is the No. 1 destination for Mexican funds. The study reveals that increases in the flow of illicit funds significantly drive Mexico's underground economy, which includes drug smuggling and human trafficking. As a result, Mexico's underground economy has ballooned to more than 30% of its GDP.
But the United States has the power to help Mexico at little cost to itself. Mexico's tax authorities need easy, automatic, access to bank deposit information on Mexican citizens with accounts in the United States, so that they may track tax evasion and other financial crimes across the border.
Under an existing treaty, the U.S. government is required to make information about specific Mexican account holders available to Mexico upon request. But the United States does not collect enough information from U.S. banks to meet most requests and must go to the banks and collect it. In practice, that system is too slow and burdensome to generate the volume of information needed to enable the Mexican government to analyze the flow of funds across the border. An automatic system of exchange would allow Mexican authorities to clamp down on illicit funds leaving their country.
The U.S. and Canada employ such a system. The U.S. Treasury already collects the requisite information on Canadian citizens' accounts in the United States and sends it to Canada automatically, and vice versa. The Canadians have the same form of automatic tax information exchange with Mexico. This means that the only exchange relationship missing between NAFTA countries is between the United States and Mexico.
The technology is already in place to execute automatic exchange, and all that is needed on the U.S. side is that the government collect a Form 1099 for all Mexican citizens with accounts in the United States. It should be very easy for Treasury to quickly and cheaply expand automatic exchange of tax information to our southern neighbor.
Mexico has asked for this information. In 2009, then-Mexican Finance Secrecy Agustin Carstens formally requested that the United States automatically exchange tax information with Mexico, in order to "help detect and prevent tax evasion, money laundering, terrorist financing, drug trafficking and organized crime." As far as we know, the Treasury has not replied.
Money is the lifeblood of any criminal organization. Tracking money has proven to be an effective way for law enforcement to catch criminals over countless generations. Al Capone himself was only caught by Eliot Ness through charges of tax evasion. Mexico needs those same tools in its arsenal to combat organized crime. Without U.S. cooperation, this becomes much more difficult.
If the United States truly wants Mexico to successfully combat the corruption, violence and pervasive influence of organized crime inside its borders, it should help Mexico address the root structural causes of its turmoil. There is no good reason to withhold this information from our neighbors. By virtue of our geographic proximity, Mexico's problems become the United States' problems. There is no excuse to ignore a highly effective, low-cost option available to us in this fight.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Heather Lowe.