13 Edomex Officers Killed in Ambush

04/01/21 (written by scortez) – On March 18, 13 police officers were gunned down by suspected drug gang members in the State of México (Estado de México, Edomex). The assault took place in a mountainous region of the state along a road where the convoy was attacked on both sides. According to Milenio, the victims include eight officers from the Secretary of Security for the State of México (Secretaría de Seguridad del Estado de México) and five investigative police from the State’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General del Estado, PGJE).

Heavily investigators at the scene of the ambush in Coatepec, Harinas, Mexico. Photo by: Jose Aguilar/ Reuters.

Three suspects have been charged and 25 other suspects have been detained for their involvement in the ambush. Those arrested have linked the organized crime group La Familia Michoacana to the attack. Authorities have since offered rewards for information on those responsible. Reuters reports that authorities have yet to release many details on the ambush, but an officer at the scene said it was likely an act of retaliation by a criminal group. Rodrigo Martínez-Celis, Security Secretary for the State of México, said, “This aggression is an affront to the Mexican state, and we will respond with total force and with the backing of the law,” (“Esta agresión es una afrenta contra el Estado mexicano, y responderemos con toda la fuerza y con el respaldo de la ley…”). Echoing the sentiments of local officials, President Andrés Manual López Obrador, known as AMLO, vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Mexican government also deployed the Marines, Army, and National Guard to the area for added security.

AMLO’s Security Dilemma

The attack poses a dilemma for AMLO who promised during his presidential campaign to curb the nationwide violence, yet has chosen to avoid directly confronting the cartels. Meanwhile, homicides rates remain high and security forces continue to be killed. According to Justice in Mexico’s Memoria, 414 members of police institutions were killed in 2019. This is the deadliest assault since the 2019 killing of 14 police officers in the state of Michoacán. This event raises serious concerns that the government is not supporting local operations and has left many officers ill-equipped to respond to the elevated number of security threats in the state. A police officer indicated that the security situation in Edomex, the most populated state in the country, has been in decline for the past decade. In the first five months of 2020, there have been 1,059 reported homicides in the state, which can be attributed to the growing presence of different organized crime groups. Animal Político reports that as of 2020, there are 26 criminal groups conducting operations in the state. AMLO who has relied heavily on the military apparatus to handle cartel violence faces the difficulty of meeting the growing demand for support in the state that continues to face a surge of violence. 

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst based in Mexico City, said, “The feeling that’s left is that it’s possible to attack an agent of the state without consequences.” His comments dig into a deeper consequence of AMLO’s pacifist approach, which is the rise of impunity — an issue that has long plagued Mexico. Mexico is notorious for its rampant levels of impunity throughout the country and the so-called cifra negra — or crimes that are unreported and/or unresolved. So far this year, Causa En Común reports that 86 agents have been murdered across the country. In 2020, the organization reported that 524 police officers were killed. During that year, Edomex and Veracruz recorded the highest numbers at 39 each. 

These numbers raise concerns on the capacity of the government to provide adequate resources for police officers to protect themselves and tackle the criminal groups in the area. It is clear that this ambush is a major setback for AMLO’s campaign promise to lower the temperature on cartel violence across Mexico. It is certain that the country will continue to wait for those campaign promises to become a reality. 

Sources

Malkin, Elizabeth. “14 Police Officers Killed in an Ambush in Mexico.” New York Times. October 14, 2019. 

Raziel, Zedryk. “26 grupos criminales operan en Edomex; Cártel Jalisco y la Familia Michoacana disputan la entidad.” Animal Político. September 24, 2020. 

Causa En Común. “Policías asesinados en 2020.” Animal Político. January 21, 2021. 

Esposito, Anthony. “’They finished them off’: Mexican town rocked by ambush that killed 13 cops.” Reuters. March 18, 2021. 

Rodríguez, Mario. “Asesinan a 13 policías en emboscada en Edomex; “agresión es una afrenta”: Fiscalía.” Milenio. March 18, 2021. 

Semple, Kirk. “13 Law Enforcement Officers Killed in Mexico Ambush.” New York Times. March 18, 2021. 

Pradilla, Alberto. “Autoridades vinculan a la Familia Michoacana con el asesinato de 13 policías en el Edomex.” Animal Político. March 19, 2021.

“Mexico charges 3, detains 25 in ambush killing of 13 police.” Associated Press. March 24, 2021.

Conversations between Mexico and the United States Signal Changes on Cooperation

Photos: Cuartoscuro and AFP

03/18/21 (written by scortez) – On March 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, nicknamed AMLO, met virtually with U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss cooperation on several key issues. Among them was immigration, which along with drug trafficking, AMLO had also discussed the day prior to with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. These conversations highlight a greater move by both administrations to cooperate on such pressing issues. 

A Gradual Shift Away From Trump-Era Policies

The bilateral meeting represents a shift in cooperation between the two countries around the issue of immigration. The Biden Administration has already made several key changes in the United States’ approach to immigration since taking office in January 2021. For example, after the meeting between AMLO and President Biden, the United States committed $4 billion in aid to development projects in Central America to quell the overwhelming migration flow that is impacting both countries. In February, the Biden Administration also ended the Trump-era policy of “Remain in Mexico” and restored the asylum system process that had existed for decades. At the U.S. border asylum seekers are now beginning to be processed and admitted into the country after waiting in Mexico. Previously, human rights groups had criticized the “Remain in Mexico” as subjecting asylum seekers to further brutality as they waited for entrance into the United States. The Biden Administration is also supporting a bill that will grant temporary legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. The proposal would provide a pathway to citizenship to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as well as other temporary programs. As well as, restoring and expanding programs for refugee and asylum seekers that the Trump Administration effectively tried to prevent from entering. 

On the other hand, as reported by the New York Times, the Biden Administration has kept other Trump policies that empower the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to rapidly expel new arrivals at the borders. Additionally, the U.S. Congress weighed in when it drafted a letter urging the Biden Administration to take on a bilateral agenda that focused on the protection of migrants, citizen security, and human rights. The letter reintroduces the conditions that asylum seekers hope to escape abhorrent conditions only to face new difficulties awaiting the status of their application. Recently, Human Rights Watch released a report chronicling the experience of asylum seekers left abandoned in Mexico who have become victims of extortion and kidnappings by Mexican authorities and criminal groups. The HRW report states that under the Remain in Mexico policy, there have been 1,100 reported cases of murder, rape, kidnapping, torture, and assault of asylum seekers while waiting at the border. Elected officials and advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch continue to put pressure on the Biden Administration to improve the conditions for migrants along the Southern Border.

Officials Reexamine Cooperation on Narcotrafficking

Most recently, officials from both countries discussed key aspects of their cooperation on narcotrafficking. Mexico has already enacted changes to the cooperation with the United States on counternarcotics by revoking the diplomatic immunity of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents after it was discovered that they were using shared intelligence to arrest Ex-Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos without alerting Mexican officials. This event was seen by both sides as hampering their cooperation efforts on the ever urgent issue. 

As Bloomberg reports, the senior director of the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council, Juan González, commented in early March on a call between officials regarding the tactics used to combat organized crime groups. González noted that in recent years, the tactics employed have not produced the results that both sides were seeking. He urged for new tactics to be adopted González did not specify which tactics in question, but he did add that aspects of the bilateral Merida Initiative do not adequately address other issues, like money laundering, cracking down on the production and distribution of precursor chemicals, and China’s role in fentanyl through Mexico. What more, Mexican officials have been pushing to include tactics to quell arms trafficking from the United States, which has played an important role in fueling the unprecedented levels of violence in Mexico. 

In 2020, the United Nations released a report that showed the unprecedented number of arms being trafficked from the United States to Mexico. According to the report, at the U.S.-Mexico border, traffickers pushed through small arms in fewer quantities, which account for 60 to 70 percent of all arms seized in 2016-17. This is in contrast to the worldwide flow of arms trafficking which was at a higher number of quantities in that same year. It is suspected that this form of “ant-trafficking” is a method to avoid seizures at the border. Under the current initiative, there is no coordination to counter this method of trafficking across the border into Mexico. To read more on the U.N.’s report, click here

These conversations mark a shift in direction from previous years for bilateral cooperation on the most urgent issues facing the two countries. AMLO and Biden have both agreed that the overwhelming number of migrants at the border needs to be controlled. While the conversations have yet to materialize into tangible bilateral agreements, they foreshadow a different direction the two countries will take on mitigating migration and narcotrafficking. 

Sources

“Global Study on Firearms Trafficking in 2020.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2020. 

“Like I’m Drowning.” Human Rights Watch. January 6,2021. 

Shear, Michael D. “Biden to Announce Broad Plan to Reverse Trump Immigration Plan.” New York Times. February 18, 2021. 

Spagat, Elliot. “US unwinds Trump policy making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico.” Associated Press. February 19, 2021. 

Stevenson, Mark. “Biden tries to reset relationship with Mexican president.”Washington Post. March 1, 2021. 

Haldenwang, Max De. “U.S. Tells Mexico Drug War’s Failure Requires New Strategy.” Bloomberg. March 3, 2021. 

“Congresistas de EU piden a Blinken trabajar con México atención a migrantes.” Animal Político. March 4, 2021. 

Kanno-Youngs, Zolan. “Biden Seeks Help on Border From Mexican President.” New York Times. March 4, 2021. 

“Migrantes solicitantes de asilo en EU son abandonados en México y sufren violaciones de sus derechos.” Animal Político. March 5, 2021. 

Defining the Candidacy of Félix Salgado Macedonio

Source: El Economista

03/09/21 (written by tmcginnis) – Félix Salgado Macedonio, former senator and now a registered candidate for the governorship of Guerrero for the 2021 state elections, faces multiple allegations of sexual assault, including two accusations of rape. Belonging to the ruling party MORENA (National Regeneration Movement), Reforma reports that Salgado Macedonio has received nearly unwavering support from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) prior to the party withdrawing his name. AMLO believes that it is up to the authorities and “the people” to resolve this matter, without the influence of politiqueros– political hacks and maneuverings. However, as noted by El País, President López Obrador is increasingly alone in that defense. Though MORENA eventually moved to pull Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy around February 27, the party is hardly able to truly impose itself on a candidate who has the support of the president. As a consequence, on March 4, the Electoral Institute of the state of Guerrero reversed the decision of MORENA and made his candidacy official. Thus, given the back and forth nature of defining Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy, it remains critically important to evaluate the mounting pressures from opposition parties, civil society campaigns, and even internal party divisions that led to the aforementioned decisions.

Government Response

According to La Jornada, at one of his traditional morning press conferences held in early February, President López Obrador reiterated his prior position on the matter, stating that the allegations and mounting oppositional pressures against Salgado Macedonio are products of the electoral season. In early January, he expressed that “when there are elections or [political] competition, it’s about discrediting the opponent in one way or another” (author’s translation). Resorting to previously observed strategies, AMLO has blamed the opposition and denounced “political lynchings,” as well as what he perceives as malicious media campaigns. According to the relevant minutes of a February 18 press conference compiled by El Universal, in response to questions regarding the reactions of various feminist groups and sectors that have denounced the candidacy, AMLO responded by arguing that those groups have the right to demonstrate and express themselves, just as the voters in Guerrero who support Salgado Macedonio have their right to elect him as their representative. He continued, defending the decisions made by the polls and the people of Guerrero. “First you have to trust the people, the people are the ones who decide” (author’s translation).

AMLO’s support should come as no surprise when considering possible motivations. For example, the president’s ability to govern comfortably hinges on the June 6 election, given that the entire Chamber of Deputies, 30 of the 32 state congresses, 15 governorates, and thousands of local offices will be renewed. 

However, though AMLO endorses Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy, he faces divisions on the matter within his own party. For example, among the most vocal, Olga Sánchez Cordero, the Secretary of the Interior and the first woman to hold the aforementioned position, stated that the respect for a woman’s right to live a life free of violence remains a critical precondition for political candidacy. Moreover, according to Animal Político, she sustained that political parties remain responsible for evaluating whether prospective candidates are qualified and comply with the established 3 out of 3 (3 de 3) rule regarding gender-based violence: candidates have not been sentenced for 1) familial violence, 2) sexual violence, or 3) non-compliance with the payment of alimony. Approved by the National Electoral Institute (Instituto Nacional Electoral) in late 2020, this initiative is supposed to protect women and ensure that positions of power are not held by abusers and violators. However, as elucidated by the case of Salgado Macedonio, many of the complaints have been ignored or not prioritized in a timely manner.

Additionally, according to El Universal, Senator Germán Martínez asked that Salgado Macedonio resign on his own volition and submit himself for investigation, arguing that this predicament should not fall on the National Regeneration Movement as a whole. “You don’t deserve it [the candidacy], women don’t deserve it, Guerrero doesn’t deserve it” (author’s translation). 

In a significant show of internal party division, El País reports that over 100 deputies from the National Regeneration Movement signed a joint letter addressed to party leadership to withdraw the candidacy of Salgado Macedonio. Subsequently, this letter was ratified by an additional 100 party affiliates and supporters of President López Obrador.

Civil Society Response

Source: El Universal

According to Reforma, many prominent actresses, writers, and activists took to social media to spearhead online campaigns against President López Obrador’s endorsement of Salgado Macedonio. As noted by MSN, tens of thousands of women, either through means of protest or social media, demanded that the president “rompa el pacto” — break the “pacto machista” or sexist pact that permits this level of impunity for male authorities. Activists even transformed the meaning of AMLO’s response — “ya chole” (translated as “enough” or “give me a break”) — which he used when continuously questioned about Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy, into a trending hashtag to express both disgust and dissatisfaction with misogyny, femicide, and indifference toward female voices. 

Source: Mexico News Daily

Why Salgado Macedonio does not have a sentence 

Mario Delgado, the National Regeneration Movement’s formal leader, defends Salgado’s candidacy on the grounds that he has not yet been convicted of any crime and therefore maintains his right to participate in electoral contests. With this in mind, the fact that Salgado Macedonio does not presently have a sentence raises several important points and inquiries about the effectiveness of Mexico’s current criminal justice system. Paola Zavala Saeb, a human rights lawyer and political analyst, makes several significant observations about the aforementioned issue, a few of which will be discussed here. 

Citing findings from a 2019 México Evalúa report, Saeb states that Guerrero represents one of the worst states with respect to confidence in criminal authorities. Furthermore, victims prefer not to report out of fear and Salgado Macedonio’s high-profile status compounds this issue even more. If victims do overcome their fears and proceed with filing a report, Guerrero lacks adequate legal representation. In fact, according to México Evalúa, there is only one legal representative for every 98 victims. Additionally, in Guerrero, only 1.6% of investigations pursued by the public prosecutor’s office lead to prosecution before a judge. Furthermore, nationwide, as detailed by Animal Político, between 2015 and 2018, as little as 5% of cases involving rape and sexual abuse received formal sentences, with only a fifth of complaints officially sent to the courts.

With the aforementioned challenges, it remains to be seen whether the accusations against Salgado Macedonio will be taken seriously and the protests of women heeded with equal weight. 

Sources

Angel, Arturo. “En cinco años, solo 5 de cada 100 denuncias por abuso sexual y violación terminaron en sentencia.” Animal Político. February 4, 2021.

Areta, Itxaro. “Sánchez Cordero dice que no violentar a las mujeres es condición necesaria para ser candidato.” Animal Político. February 18, 2021. 

Barragán, Almudena. “Más de 100 diputadas de Morena exigen que se retire la candidatura de Salgado Macedonio tras las acusaciones de violación.” El País. January 12, 2021. 

El Universal. “‘Félix, rompe el pacto’, pide Germán Martínez a Salgado Macedonio.” El Universal. February 18, 2021. 

El Universal. “La mañanera de AMLO, 18 de febrero, minuto a minuto.” El Universal. February 18, 2021. 

Manetto, Francesco. “El ‘caso Salgado Macedonio’ abre un frente en Morena ante las elecciones de junio.” El País. February 21, 2021. 

Martínez, Fabiola and Roberto Garduño. “Pueblo y autoridades deben definir candidatura de Salgado Macedonio: AMLO.” La Jornada. February 17, 2021. 

México Evalúa. “Hallazgos 2019: Seguimiento y evaluación del sistema de justicia penal en México.” México Evalúa. 2020. 

Peterson Farah, Diego. “#YaChole y el pacto.” MSN Noticias. February 20, 2021. 

Raziel, Zedryk. “Candidatura de Salgado divide a Morena y genera sospechas de encubrimiento.” Animal Político. February 17, 2021. 

Reforma Staff. “Las mujeres que acusan a Félix Salgado de violación.” Reforma. February 2021. 

Yucatan Times. “Morena ‘pulls’ Félix Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy after allegations of rape and sexual abuse.” Yucatan Times. February 27, 2021. 

Zavala Saeb, Paola. “7 razones por las que Salgado Macedonio no tiene sentencia.” Animal Político. February 3, 2021

Two Years of AMLO in Office: A Brief Look at his Security Strategy

02/01/2021 (written by emarinoni) – It has been just over two years since Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, took office in December 2018. This provides an opportune moment to reflect on the impact and effectiveness of his security strategy–a strategy that promised to be a key focus during his administration.

On December 1, 2020, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrated two years since he took office, completing one-third of his mandate. Photo: Expansión Política.

Presidential Campaign

Since his early days on the campaign trail, President López Obrador (2018-2024) proposed a security strategy based on four key pillars. This includes the creation of economic and social opportunities for youth; an amnesty law for specific crimes under specific conditions; the lifting of the ban on illicit drugs, together with the rebuilding of resources for social reintegration and detoxification programs; and finally, the promotion of sanctions for non-compliance with recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH). In addition, AMLO’s administration rooted its security strategy in a policy based on the slogan “hugs not bullets” (abrazos no balazos), moving away from the strategy of the militarization of public security and the focus on killing cartel leaders. This represented a pivot from previous administrations’ approaches, including those of former Presidents Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).

First Years of Government

During the first two years of the López Obrador administration, several reforms were implemented in support of the strategies AMLO proposed during his presidential bid.

Budget Reforms for Social Programs

In the budgets for 2019-2021, a significant amount of money was earmarked for social programs. By the close of FY2021, AMLO is expecting to have reached 2.3 million young adults aged 18 to 29 who will benefit from social programs. Three of the most noteworthy social programs aimed at job creation among youth are Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida), the Benito Juárez Scholarships (Becas de Benito Juárez), and Youth Building the Future (Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro), all of which launched in 2019.

According to El Economista, in FY2021, the Sowing Life program’s budget increased 15.1% compared to FY2020. The budget of the Benito Juárez Scholarships also increased by 65,333 million pesos (almost $3 million USD) compared to a 17,280-million pesos increase (almost $800,000 USD) in 2019. The Youth Building the Future program, however, experienced a 17.5% decrease in its budget from FY2019. Since that program was launched in AMLO’s first year, it has seen an overall budget reduction of 40%. Nevertheless, its budget and the program’s overall impact still rank it among the most influential youth development programs AMLO has put forward.

Legal Policies

In addition to the budget reforms, a second important piece of legislation put forth by the López Administration came in April 2020 when the Senate adopted the Amnesty Act (Ley de Amnistía). This law establishes the acquittal of secondary offenses that do not include murder, kidnapping, or the use of a firearm. These include abortion (both the individual seeking an abortion and the medical practitioners), possession and transportation of narcotics, and crimes committed by members of indigenous peoples who have not been guaranteed due process.

In November 2020 the Mexican Senate also approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational, medical, scientific, industrial, and medical use. It is a step forward in the policy of legalizing light drugs in the country. The new law regulates and legalizes the use of marijuana in private homes when there are no minors, establishes that individuals may possess no more than 28 grams, and allows for up to eight marijuana plants to be cultivated at an individual’s home.

Security Strategy

Despite the progress made with the budget reforms, Amnesty Law, and the law on marijuana use, the López Obrador administration did break from its proposed security strategy when it approved and initiated the use of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). In June 2019, the first contingent of Mexico’s National Guard was deployed. In addition to the gradual increase in government spending on public security, militarized forces have also been assigned a growing number of security tasks. This culminated in May 2020 when AMLO announced the extension of armed forces’ involvement in public security affairs until March 2024, a controversial decision that drew condemnation from human rights and civil society groups alike.

First Results and Indicators

The main indicators that monitor the state of public security in Mexico worsened in the first two years of President López Obrador’s government. According to the Executive Secretary of the National System of Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP), from 2017 to 2019, intentional homicides jumped from 28,870 in 2017 to 33,742 in 2018 when AMLO took office in December. This rose to 34,588 in 2019, but appears to have leveled off in 2020, which recorded 34,515 homicides according to SESNSP’s most recent data released in January 2021. 

In addition to homicides, the INEGI national security perception index also recorded an increase in the level of insecurity perceived by citizens between 2017 and 2018, jumping from 74.3 to 79.4 in a single year. In 2019, this value leveled off at 78.9–just slightly below that of 2018. According to data from the World Justice Project, Mexico’s position in terms of its rule of law has worsened in recent years; in 2019, it ranked 99 out of 126 countries–down two places from its 2018 rank of 97. In 2020, it fell even further to 104 out of 128 countries.

In addition to empirical data recorded over the first two years of AMLO’s term, several key events occurred that challenged the effectiveness of AMLO’s security strategy. These included the arrest and subsequent release of the son of notorious kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, El Chapo, on October 17, 2019. His son, Ovidio Guzmán, was released from government custody after a violent and dramatic battle broke out between the Sinaloa Cartel and security officials in the streets of Culiacán, Sinaloa. This was followed just weeks after by a massacre that raised bilateral tension when a local Mormon family with dual citizenship was ambushed by affiliates of an organized crime group. The attack on November 4, 2019, took place in northeastern Sonora along the U.S.-Mexico border with Arizona. Most recently, in June of 2020, Mexican officials confronted a failed attempt by members of organized crime to kill Omar García Harbuch, Mexico City’s  Secretary of Public Security. Experts say these events underscore Mexico’s ongoing, and in many ways, worsening, security crisis.

Conclusions

Mexico is facing a serious security crisis characterized by high levels of violence, much of which is caused by organized crime. Although empirical data do not indicate a substantial improvement in the security situation in Mexico, the observed violence has no singular cause, which makes it a fluid process with no easy solution. Still, based on the approach of the past two years, it is likely that the López Obrador administration will continue to implement a security strategy based on militarization, centralization of security operations, and social support programs.

Sources

Zavala, Misael. “AMLOO will pay MXN$5,000 a month to tree growers in Mexico.” El Universal. September 10, 2018.

Amparo Casár, Maria. “El Gran Benefactor.” Nexos. March 1, 2019.

Serrano Carreto, Mónica del Carmen. “La estrategia de seguridad de AMLO. ¿De la pacificación a la militarización?” Revista IUS. July 1, 2019.

Estrategia de seguridad de AMLO no convence y genera más dudas entre analistas.” Infobae. November 1, 2019.

“The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa.” Justice in Mexico. November 5, 2019. 

Velázquez, Marisol. “Presupuesto 2021: Bienestar (programas sociales, salud, adultos mayores).” El Economista. September 8, 2020.

El Senado de México aprueba la legalización para el uso medicinal y recreativo de la marihuana.” El Confidencial. November 20, 2020.

Dávila, Israel. “Aprueban Ley de Amnistía en el Estado de México.” La Jornada. December 17, 2020.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Incidencia delictiva del Fuero Común.” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 23, 2021. 

Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes Database. “Beníto Juárez Scholarships for the Well-being (2019-). United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes Database. “Youth building the future (Jóvenes construyendo el futuro) (2019-). United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Secretaría de Educación Pública. “Becas Beníto Juárez.” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

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Mexico Clears Former Defense Minister Cienfuegos of Criminal Allegations

01/26/21 (written by rramos) — On January 14, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) announced in a press release that it would not prosecute General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the country’s former defense minister who had been accused by authorities in the United States of collusion with drug trafficking organizations. In absolving the retired Army general of the allegations, the FGR affirmed that Cienfuegos never had any contact with members of the criminal organization that U.S. authorities had cited in court documents related to his October 2020 arrest, nor did he ever carry out any action aimed at protecting or helping said individuals. The FGR also stated that an analysis of Cienfuegos’s financial records did not reveal any discrepancies or indications of illegal income. This comes after U.S. prosecutors unexpectedly dropped all drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Cienfuegos and returned him to Mexican custody for further investigation in November 2020. The arrest of Cienfuegos by U.S. authorities a month prior was reported to have outraged Mexican officials, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, purportedly because the U.S. had never informed them about the investigation being conducted against the former general.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, was cleared of all criminal charges on January 14. Photo: Milenio.

In reaction to the announcement that the Mexican government would not pursue prosecution, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said it was “deeply disappointed” and added that it “fully stands by its investigation and charges in this matter”. U.S. officials also sharply criticized a move by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE) to publish 751 pages of evidence against Cienfuegos that U.S. authorities had collected and subsequently shared with Mexican counterparts. A spokesperson for DOJ stated that the SRE’s public release of investigative documents, apparently done on President López Obrador’s instructions, “violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.”

President López Obrador seemed to shrug off the heated U.S. response at a January 18 press conference, in which he slammed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into Cienfuegos’s alleged ties to organized crime. Asserting that the evidence against Cienfuegos was fraught with “contradictions” and “errors,” President López Obrador argued that documentation provided by DEA did not prove any of the U.S. accusations because it relied too heavily on “screenshots” and written messages with spelling errors that could not be attributed to the former defense minister. At another press conference days later, the president again alleged that the DEA had “fabricated” evidence against Cienfuegos, a claim he had reiterated several times since the FGR announced it would not move forward with criminal charges.

Military’s Continued Clout over Corruption Probes

The swiftness in clearing Cienfuegos of the allegations against him has raised fresh concerns about the enduring ability of Mexico’s military to influence the fight against corruption. Speaking to InSight Crime, Siria Gastelum of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime noted that the speed at which Mexican authorities were able to exonerate Cienfuegos would inevitably cast doubt on the government’s capability and willingness to properly investigate accusations of wrongdoing within the military. Indeed, at the time of the U.S. decision to drop charges against Cienfuegos in November 2020, observers in both Mexico and the United States expressed worries that the political weight of the Armed Forces would ultimately allow a high-ranking military official like Cienfuegos to escape persecution. Catalina Pérez Correa, a criminal law professor affiliated with the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) think tank, predicted that the former defense minister would not face charges upon his return to Mexico, citing the military’s ever-increasing influence within the government and long record of impunity. Mike Vigil, a former chief of foreign operations for the DEA, agreed, telling the Los Angeles Times that Cienfuegos’s “chances of being prosecuted in Mexico [were] slim to none.”

It was widely reported that the López Obrador administration’s vigorous efforts to have Cienfuegos returned from U.S. custody and the subsequent decision to quickly clear him of all charges were the result of strong pressure from the military. This suggests that the Armed Forces will continue to be in a position to impede genuine investigations into other high-profile cases of alleged military corruption, such as the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa and the killing of civilians in Tlatlaya that same year, both of which occurred during Cienfuegos’s tenure as defense minister.

Uncertain Future for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

The ongoing fallout from the Cienfuegos case may have wide-ranging implications for security cooperation between Mexico and the United States moving forward. Arguably the most important and immediate challenge to bilateral security ties is the recently passed reform to Mexico’s National Security Law that was largely the result of Mexican anger over the United States’ unilateral decision to arrest Cienfuegos. The reform severely restricts the ability of foreign law enforcement officers, including U.S. DEA agents deployed in Mexico, to operate within the country by imposing strict authorization requirements for meetings with contacts in Mexican law enforcement. In addition, it requires them to share “any and all security-related intelligence” with Mexican officials. Notably, the new law also eliminates diplomatic immunity for foreign agents, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution if they fail to abide by the new regulations. 

When combined with these new operational restrictions, the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s aforementioned publication of investigative materials provided by the DEA regarding Cienfuegos’s alleged links to criminal groups may significantly lessen the willingness of the United States to continue exchanging intelligence with Mexico. This would represent a serious deterioration in bilateral security cooperation, in which information-sharing has long been a central pillar. 

At the center of the uncertainty regarding the future of U.S.-Mexico security ties is a fundamental breakdown in mutual trust. The decision by the López Obrador administration to push for new restrictions on DEA agents in Mexico even after the U.S. had dropped charges against Cienfuegos was viewed by Washington as a duplicitous act. The subsequent hasty exoneration of Cienfuegos, the release of DEA documents, and persistent accusations of fabricating evidence have only compounded the strains in the bilateral relationship. Both countries can take concrete steps to begin to rebuild confidence and ease the tension that has arisen from the ongoing Cienfuegos saga. Such measures will be crucial to security on both sides of the border given the transnational nature of threats facing the two countries.

Sources

Pradilla, Alberto. “Más allá de Tlatlaya y Ayotzinapa: el historial militar que dejó el General Cienfuegos.” Animal Político. October 17, 2020. 

McDonnell, Patrick J. & Linthicum, Kate. “In a stunning reversal, U.S. drops charges against Mexico’s ex-defense chief.” Los Angeles Times. November 17, 2020. 

Kuckertz, Rita E. “United States Will Drop Charges against Former Mexican Defense Minister Cienfuegos.” Justice in Mexico. November 18, 2020. 

Pérez Correa, Catalina. “La inmunidad militar.” El Universal. November 24, 2020. 

“Mexico lawmakers restrict foreign law enforcement agents.” BBC. December 16, 2020. 

Berg, Ryan C. “The Mérida Initiative may be dead, but restarting US-Mexico security cooperation will be crucial.” American Enterprise Institute. January 6, 2021. 

McGinnis, Teagan. “Mexican Security Law Reforms May Impact Bilateral Initiatives on Organized Crime.” Justice in Mexico. January 11, 2021. 

“Comunicado 013/21. FGR Informa.” Fiscalía General de la República. January 14, 2021. 

“Acusa AMLO a DEA de fabricar delitos contra Cienfuegos.” Aristegui Noticias. January 15, 2021. 

Asmann, Parker. “Mexico Clears Ex-Defense Minister, Accuses US of ‘Fabricating’ Drug Charges.” InSight Crime. January 15, 2021. 

Hosenball, Mark & Esposito, Anthony. “U.S. ‘deeply disappointed’ Mexico closed probe of ex-defense minister.” Reuters. January 16, 2021. 

Villamil, Justin. “Mexico Slammed By U.S. After Documents Released in Drug Case.” Bloomberg. January 16, 2021. 

Domínguez, Pedro. “Estoy decepcionado del trabajo de la DEA, afirma AMLO.” Milenio. January 18, 2021. 

Brewer, Stephanie. “Explainer: Key Points for Understanding Mexico’s Cienfuegos Case.” Washington Office on Latin America. January 19, 2021. 

Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “The U.S.-Mexico security relationship in 2021.” Brookings Institution. January 19, 2021. 

“DEA tiene que explicar quién fabricó el expediente Cienfuegos: AMLO.” Aristegui Noticias. January 22, 2021.