Mexican Security Law Reforms May Impact Bilateral Initiatives on Organized Crime

01/11/21 (written by tmcginnis) — The National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, MORENA), President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) ruling party, passed a new law that curbs the role of foreign law enforcement agents operating within the country. This legislation calls into question the durability of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral efforts to combat the presence of powerful organized crime groups (OCG) exercising significant control over the Mexican state.

Source: InSight Crime.

Understanding the Legislation

“Con 329 votos a favor, 98 en contra y 40 abstenciones, aprueban dictamen por el que se adicionan diversas disposiciones de la Ley de Seguridad Nacional.” Author’s translation: “With 329 votes in favor, 98 against and 40 abstentions, they approved an opinion that incorporates several provisions to the National Security Law.” Source: Twitter – Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados).

As reported by InSight Crime, the law and subsequent reforms, approved on December 9 and 15 by the Senate and Congress respectively, strip diplomatic immunity from foreign officials, necessitate that foreign officials secure permits from the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) to carry firearms, and require the aforementioned officials to share any and all security-related intelligence gathered while in Mexico with their proper Mexican counterparts. Concerning information exchanges, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, further details that both Mexican officials and law enforcement officers, whether it be at the local, state, or federal level, must report all communication with foreign law enforcement, intelligence agents, etc. within three days of the initial occurrence. Furthermore, meetings with foreign agents must obtain prior approval from high-ranking federal officials and require the presence of a member of the Mexican Foreign Ministry (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE). 

Possible Initial Impetus

Although the legislation does not overtly single out agents or officials from any particular country, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has maintained a strong operating presence in Mexico since the 1970s, will likely constitute one of the most impacted actors. According to Proceso, President AMLO put forth an initial proposal to regulate foreign officials in early December. As El Universal notes, this opening push came seemingly as a result of the arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, which occurred in October of 2020. Cienfuegos was arrested by DEA agents on U.S. soil on October 15 for alleged connections with drug trafficking and organized crime. At the time, El Universal reported that Mexican officials were unaware of the United States’ plans to arrest Cienfuegos. In fact, InSight Crime reports that Mexican officials had no knowledge of the multi-year investigation or the indictment filed in August of 2019. Furthermore, seeing that Cienfuegos represents the first senior Mexican military official to face arrest in the United States in connection to organized crime groups and drug trafficking, these gaps in intelligence simply compounded the existing shockwaves. 

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Source: Brookings.

In attempting to rectify what Rita Kukertz of Justice in Mexico deems the “breach of trust” caused by the discrepancy in intelligence, the United States, in a move clearly breaking with decades of international law enforcement procedures and practices, dropped the charges and allowed Cienfuegos to return to Mexico. However, according to Brookings, this unprecedented action was predicated on the “premise of a bargain” to not expel U.S. law enforcement officials and agents from Mexico — a move the Mexican government had threatened in the past. Thus, the new law may be seen as a “double-cross” from Mexico, in that its significance or “practical impact” remains similar to expulsion. “Essentially, the law paralyzes Mexico’s cooperation with international law enforcement counterparts and eviscerates any remaining trust and meaningful law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Mexico,” writes Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings.  

Predicted Impact

U.S. agencies have long engaged in joint operations with their Mexican counterparts to combat organized crime groups. Unfortunately, these efforts, working in tandem with billions of dollars in U.S. assistance, have not always achieved the desired outcomes and have, at times, resulted in serious missteps by the United States, as in the case of Cienfuegos or the 2011 attack on Allende by the Zetas cartel. However, it remains of critical importance to highlight that U.S. intelligence-gathering operations have been instrumental in arresting, prosecuting, and convicting high-profile individuals, such as Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”), the former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin. Thus, the security reforms have raised concerns for several actors. For example, in a formal statement, former U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr expressed that the United States is “troubled by legislation currently before the Mexican Congress.” He continued, arguing that the “passage of this legislation can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting.” 

In assessing the principal impacts, a substantial amount of information sharing and intelligence gathering occurs at lower levels through potential informants and cooperative witnesses. However, actors like the DEA, who are now restricted and vulnerable to prosecution in Mexico, will be less willing to put themselves in danger to acquire and relay mutually beneficial intelligence. As detailed by Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the Head of Security Research Programs at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, with little incentive to engage in those conversations or coordinate exchanges, crucial information channels will begin to dwindle and wane, eventually drying up the evidentiary ammunition previously used to disrupt organized crime operations. Furthermore, as noted by Brookings, with the previously discussed condition necessitating the presence of a member of the Mexican Foreign Ministry during meetings with foreign agents, the ability to secure the attendance of a Foreign Relations official in an urgent time frame or complicated location (e.g. deep in Guerrero, Jalisco, etc.) could be rather unfeasible.

President López Obrador’s Motivations

Though a previous section discusses the arrest of Cienfuegos as a possible impetus for the law, one can also think of it more as a tipping point. President AMLO has several possible and more complicated motivations in pursuing such legislation. Firstly, and arguably most directly, AMLO faced pressure from the Mexican military to prevent further investigations and shockwaves, akin to what was witnessed regarding General Cienfuegos. AMLO has additionally privileged the presence of the Mexican military, SEDENA, in many traditionally civilian-run operations, such as the construction of airports, repairs of hospitals, etc. Analysts continue to raise concerns about the Mexican military’s ever-expanding power and influence. 

Second, the president could be utilizing the legislation as a “bargaining chip.” AMLO still has to sign off on the law in order for it to reach formal implementation. However, if he delays signing, he could possibly generate leverage to hinder the U.S.’ incoming Biden Administration’s initiatives that will likely be controversial in the context of bilateral relations, such as energy reform and the mitigation of climate change. 

Though the impact of this legislation on the U.S.-Mexico bilateral effort to combat organized crime is rather apparent, AMLO should remain wary of the possible unintended consequences as well. Brookings notes that by restricting the operations of U.S. law enforcement, this includes those U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Mexico who authorize the preclearance of cargo. Their limited presence will lead to a bottleneck of trucks waiting for inspection, creating issues in the supply chain and putting significant revenue, such as produce, at risk.

Sources

Asmann, Parker. “What Do Security Law Reforms Mean for US-Mexico Organized Crime Fight?” InSight Crime. December 18, 2020. 

Cámara de Diputados (@Mx_Diputados). “Con 329 votos a favor, 98 en contra y 40 abstenciones, aprueban dictamen por el que se adicionan diversas disposiciones de la Ley de Seguridad Nacional. Pasa al Ejecutivo federal.” Twitter. December 15, 2020. 

Coordinación de Comunicación Social. “Aprueba Senado reforma a Ley de Seguridad Nacional.” Senado de la República. December 9, 2020. 

Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs. “Statement by Attorney General William P. Barr on Mexico’s Proposed Legislation.” The United States Department of Justice. December 11, 2020. 

El Universal. “Por qué la reforma exprés de la Ley de Seguridad de México desafía a EU?” BBC Mundo. December 16, 2020. 

Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “A dangerous backtrack on the US-Mexico security relationship.” Brookings. December 21, 2020. 

Gaceta Parlamentaria. “De las Comisiones Unidas de Gobernación y Población, y de Defensa Nacional, con proyecto de decreto por el que se adicionan diversas disposiciones de la Ley de Seguridad Nacional.” Cámara de Diputados. December 15, 2020. 

Keefe, Patrick. “The Hunt for El Chapo.” The New Yorker. April 28, 2014. 

Kuckertz, Rita. “Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda Arrested by U.S. Officials.” Justice in Mexico. October 19, 2020. 

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

Linthicum, Kate and Patrick J. McDonnell. “Mexico’s military gains power as president turns from critic to partner.” Los Angeles Times. November 21, 2020. 

Pedro Villa y Caña. “No investigamos a Cienfuegos porque no teníamos información contra él: AMLO.” El Universal. October 17, 2020. 

Reuters Staff. “Mexican lawmakers vote to restrict foreign agents despite U.S. pressure.” Reuters. December 15, 2020. 

San Martín, Neldy. “Senado recibe iniciativa de AMLO que regula presencia de agentes extranjeros en México.” Proceso. December 4, 2020. 

Sheridan, Mary Beth. “Perdiendo el control: Mientras la seguridad en México se deteriora, el poder de las fuerzas militares crece.” The Washington Post. December 17, 2020. 
Thompson, Ginger. “Anatomía de una masacre.” ProPublica. June 12, 2017.

Justice in Mexico Celebrates 15th Anniversary

8/23/17- (written by Lucy Clement La Rosa) On August 11th, Justice in Mexico commemorated 15 years of promoting bilateral cooperation between Mexico and the United States, specifically related to rule of law challenges in Mexico. The significant milestone was celebrated with a daytime seminar of several panel discussions at the University of San Diego, followed by an evening reception and award dinner.

The seminar, Justice in Mexico: An Agenda for the Future, was attended by various professional and academic individuals involved in U.S.- Mexico bilateral relations, including the UNAM Law School (Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) participants of Justice in Mexico’s third 2017 OASIS study trip. Several distinguished guests from Mexico attended the discussion sessions, including: Minister Amando Vázquez, Magistrate Alejandro Gonzalez, Magistrate Luciano Angulo, and Dr. Maria Candelaria Pelayo.

Justice in Mexico commemorated their 15th anniversary with a seminar of several panel discussions focused on rule of law challenges in Mexico.

Justice in Mexico commemorated their 15th anniversary with a seminar of several panel discussions focused on rule of law challenges in Mexico.

The panel contributors included: Dr. David Shirk, Dr. Wayne Cornelius, Dr. Max Langer, Dr. Hugo Concha, Mag. Gonzalez, Dr. Pelayo, Dr. Octavio Rodríguez, Lic. Alex Ríos, Dra. Layda Negrete, Mstra. Janice Deaton, Mstro. David Fernández, and Mstra. Susana Peña. The speakers discussed a variety of topics related to the Justice in Mexico agenda, including: the accomplishments and challenges of Justice in Mexico and the initiatives needed to strengthen judicial reforms, combat corruption, and improve legal education in Mexico.

In particular, Dr. Cornelius spoke at length of Justice in Mexico’s achievement in creating the Justiciabarómetro, a database focused on gauging the level of criminal justice reform and the perspectives of judicial officials within Mexico. Although Dr. Cornelius acknowledged that serious challenges remain in Mexico, he pointed out that the Justiciabarómetro 2016 dataset indicates an encouraging increase of favorability for the recent criminal justice reforms. Mexican magistrate of Michoacán state, Alejandro González Gómez, expounded on the remaining challenges, such as the lack of training for judges, magistrates, etc. and the low salary of Mexico’s police officers. Additionally, Maestro David Fernández Mena emphasized the important role of Mexican education institutions in strengthening criminal justice reform.

Following the seminar sessions, the participants were invited to an evening reception, followed by an award dinner. The following individuals were honored for their efforts in promoting democracy and rule of law in Mexico: Edna Jaime (founder and Director General of México Evalúa), José Ramón Cossío Díaz (Minister of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation and professor at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, ITAM), Dr. Miguel Basáñez Ebergenyi (ex-Mexican ambassador to the United States and professor at Tufts University), Dr. Denise Dresser (political analyst and professor at ITAM), and Dr. Cornelius (expert on immigration and Mexican politics).

The awarded individuals, sans Dr. Dresser who was unable to attend, led an informative dialogue moderated by Dr. Shirk. The discussion focused on Mexico’s recent establishment of an oral, adversarial criminal justice system and the dual role of judicial operators and legal education in ensuring positive progress. Namely, the panelists discussed the strategies and resources necessary to ensure the success of this judicial transition, as well as expounding on Justice in Mexico’s impact in providing trainings and workshops for judicial operatives.

Justice in Mexico extends the sincerest gratitude to their sponsors and donors for their contributions and support in making the anniversary event possible. The commemoration of Justice in Mexico’s accomplishments and the informative contribution of each individual who dedicated their time to the event inspire Justice in Mexico to continue strengthening and improving rule of law in Mexico.

El Chapo extradited to United States

El Chapo's extradition

Seen here, El Chapo was extradited to the United States on January 19, 2017. Photo: Associated Press.

01/24/17 (written by kheinle) – One year after the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on January 8, 2016, the Mexican government extradited the notorious drug lord to the United States. Guzmán landed in Long Island, New York on Thursday, January 19, 2017 where he faces charges of organized crime, murder, and drug trafficking, as well as illegal use of firearms, money-laundering, and torture, among others.

Although seven U.S. jurisdictions have charges open against him, including Southern California and Chicago, Guzmán will be prosecuted in Brooklyn, NY in the state’s Eastern District Court on a 17-count indictment. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), “the indictment alleges that between January 1989 and December 2014, Guzman Loera led a continuing criminal enterprise responsible for importing into the United States and distributing massive amounts of illegal narcotics and conspiring to murder persons who posed a threat to Guzman Loera’s narcotics enterprise.”

The Road to Extradition

The DOJ has sought Guzmán’s extradition for years, but the Mexican government did not agree to do so until the requests for the kingpin’s turnover until it approved the most recent application on May 11, 2016, putting the process officially in motion. The decision to approve the extradition was likely influenced by Guzmán’s repeated ability to evade the Mexican government, having escaped from prison in 2001 and again in 2015. Mexico’s inability to securely hold Guzmán was not only a source of public ridicule, but it also undermined rule of law in a country working to establish a stronger judicial system and solidify democratic practices. Still, the extradition came as a surprise on both sides of the border. According to The New York Times, the U.S. government, for example, was reportedly not aware of Guzmán’s extradition until hours before his arrival in NY. Guzmán’s lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez, was also unaware of his client’s departure, having arrived to the Mexican prison where Guzmán was detained to meet with his client only to find his extradition already underway. “I was supposed to visit him today,” said Refugio. “I know nothing about this.”

El Chapo's extradition

El Chapo was arraigned in the Eastern District Court in New York following his extradition. Photo: Univisión.

Some speculate that the secretive nature surrounding the extradition may be part of a bigger political message being sent from Mexico to the United States. In fact, Guzmán landed in NY just hours before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, meaning he was technically extradited to the United States under President Barak Obama, who was seen in Mexico as a strong ally. A U.S. law enforcement official told The New York Times that the extradition’s last minute timing was possibly “politically motivated.” In early January, Justice in Mexico Director David Shirk told the Dallas Morning Times that “Mexico’s willingness to extradite Chapo Guzmán is going to diminish on January 21” once Trump was in the Oval Office. Jorge Chabat, a security expert at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE), noted that Mexico may have been trying to underscore the benefits of cooperation. “By not waiting to send [Guzmán] to Trump after the inauguration,” he said, “it is a subtle statement saying, ‘We could this for you, too, in the future, if we have a good relationship.” Nevertheless, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) denied such claims. “It has nothing to do with [U.S. presidential turnover,” said PGR Director Alberto Elías Beltrán. He continued, “Everything was handled through terms following international law because we had to promptly make the delivery of the person requested by the United States. Had we not, we would have been out of compliance with international treaties.”

Regardless of the motivation, Guzmán’s extradition is a significant milestone in the war on drugs and the overall U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship.

Sources:

Dresser, Denise. “El Chapo(teadero).” Reforma. January 11, 2016.

“The legal battle over El Chapo’s potential extradition.” Justice in Mexico. January 23, 2016.

Levinson, Jonathan. “NAFTA benefits more than just trade, but it needs to be changed,” Dallas Morning News, January 10, 2017.

Ahmed, Azam. “El Chapo, Mexcan Drug Kingpin, Is Extradited to U.S.” The New York Times. January 19, 2017.

“Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán es extraditado a Estados Unidos.” Univisión. January 19, 2017.

Office of Public Affairs. “Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera Faces Charges in New York for Leading a Continuing Criminal Enterprise and other Drug-Related Charges.” U.S. Department of Justice. January 20, 2017.

U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. “Memorandum of Law in Support of Pretrial Detention.” U.S. Department of Justice. January 20, 2017.