Justice in Mexico releases 2021 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico Report

10/22/21- (written by rramos)- Justice in Mexico has released the third edition of Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico, coordinated by Laura Y. Calderón, Kimberly Heinle, Rita E. Kuckertz, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk. Previously titled Drug Violence in Mexico, the release marks the third consecutive year in which the report has been issued under its current name, in recognition of ongoing shifts in the nature of organized crime. During a consequential period for Mexico, this latest edition of Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the country’s dynamic public security situation by compiling key statistics and exploring the broader significance of emerging and persistent trends.

Trends in Violent Crimes

Mexico experienced a slight decrease in homicides in 2020. Data from the Mexican National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) indicated that 2020 saw a 0.3% decline in the number of homicides compared to the number of homicides in 2019. With data from the first half of 2021 continuing to show modest decreases in the number of homicides, there are indications that the surge in homicides that began in 2015 may be starting to level off. Nevertheless, the number of homicides in Mexico remains at exceptionally high levels.

Additionally, SNSP data showed that the occurrence of other violent crimes, such as extortion, kidnappings, and intentional injuries, decreased in 2020 compared to 2019.  However, the report notes that widespread underreporting of crimes, as well as disruptions of data collection activities and reporting mechanisms caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaves open the possibility that the actual numbers of crimes committed may be higher than official figures. 

Special attention continued to be paid to violence against certain populations, including women and journalists. When combining totals of femicide victims and female victims of intentional homicide, the 2020 daily average of women killed each day was virtually unchanged from the average recorded in 2019. With regards to journalists, Justice in Mexico’s Memoria dataset showed that 2020 was the deadliest year for journalists and media workers, with a 169% increase in killings compared to 2019. 

Impact of COVID-19

Reflecting the widespread and unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the globe since early 2020, the report features a section dedicated to examining the ways in which COVID-19 and measures to contain the pandemic have affected criminal groups in Mexico. Organized crime networks adjusted to the logistical challenges of supply chain disruptions and limited access to key infrastructure through a variety of methods, including artificially inflating drug prices and withholding shipments in order to maximize revenues and compensate for lost profits. As noted by the report, the impact of COVID-19 on organized crime activities may compel criminal actors to reshape and redesign their illicit operations in the future. 

Also of note, criminal organizations demonstrated their ability to exploit economic hardship caused by the pandemic. A number of organized crime groups across the country engaged in delivery of aid packages and similar measures in a bid to attract support within the local communities in which these groups operate. Among those groups that provided humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic were some of Mexico’s most well-known criminal organizations, including the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel. 

Mexican Government Responses

The 2021 report also evaluated the potential impacts of certain key policies pursued by the Mexican Government in response to the country’s ongoing security challenges.

Among the topics covered was the continuing role of the National Guard, a critical pillar of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s public security strategy. Despite the National Guard’s continued centrality in efforts to address violence and similar measures that point to ongoing militarization of public security, official data indicates that violence and crime have remained at extraordinarily high levels throughout the López Obrador administration. 

Moreover, the report touches upon the possible implications of recent developments in security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. In particular, the report delves into the ways in which the December 2020 adoption of changes to the National Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Nacional) may interrupt flows of information between Mexican and U.S. authorities or damage efforts to build trust between the two sides. 

Looking ahead

Security and violence in Mexico will remain significant challenges in the foreseeable future. Through a broad, encompassing survey of key data and statistics, Justice in Mexico’s 2021 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico report seeks to shed further light on the complex trends and patterns influencing the overall trajectory of Mexico’s security situation. Through better understanding of the nature of crime and violence, Justice in Mexico hopes to contribute to efforts to more effectively tackle these issues. 

Totoaba Poaching Seizures Point to Increases in Environmental Crime

08/31/21 (written by rramos) – Officials from the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) seized four properties in San Felipe, Baja California on August 12 after a joint investigation by multiple agencies determined the buildings were being used by a criminal network dedicated to the illegal trafficking of totoaba fish. Along with a cache of totoaba organs and fishnets, FGR officials also discovered firearms, tactical vests, and radio equipment while inspecting the seized properties. Investigators told La Jornada that they believe the totoaba fish found in the confiscated buildings were meant to be exported illegally from Baja California to China as part of a transnational criminal venture. 

The High Price of Totoaba Fish

The totoaba is a species of saltwater fish native to the Gulf of California that is protected under international and Mexican law. It has become increasingly endangered due to poaching. In particular, the totoaba’s swim bladder is highly sought after in parts of East Asia for use in traditional medicines and as a culinary delicacy. The strong demand for totoaba has resulted in remarkably high prices for illegally harvested totoaba bladders and meat. Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, director of the environmental advocacy group Proyecto Vaquita CPR, told Milenio in a 2019 interview that one kilogram of totoaba could be sold for as much as $100,000 U.S. dollars on the black market in China. Similarly, an investigative article published by Excelsior in July 2021 found that one kilogram of totoaba bladder could command a price of up to one million Mexican pesos in Hong Kong. 

The potential for large profits is compelling a growing number of organized crime groups in Mexico to add totoaba poaching to their portfolio of illicit activities. In June 2021, investigators in Baja California reported that criminal cells linked to Los Chapitos—the sons of jailed Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—were seeking to deepen their presence in towns near the Gulf of California like San Felipe in order to forge operational ties with suspected totoaba traffickers. According to a report by non-governmental organization Earth League International, criminal groups in northwestern Mexico may be increasingly attracted to totoaba trafficking because it can generate profits comparable to those gained from drug trafficking, but with a perceived lower risk of being detected by authorities.

Display of totoaba fish organs seized by the National Guard (Guardia Nacional, GN) in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Photo: Radio Turquesa

Growth in Environmental Crimes

The illegal poaching of totoaba fish is just one example of a range of environmentally-related crimes that are gaining popularity among criminal groups in Mexico. Both the Center for Biological Diversity in Mexico (Centro para la Diversidad Biológica en México) and the Mexican Environmental Impact Academy (Academia Mexicana de Impacto Ambiental) warned in May 2021 that the illicit trade of rare and exotic animals, such as tigers, chinchillas, freshwater turtles, and other species, has increased considerably in recent years. In Mexico City alone, data from the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, PROFEPA) showed that the number of exotic animals rescued in anti-wildlife trafficking operations skyrocketed from roughly 5,000 in 2019 to over 33,000 in 2020. A joint statement by the federal Secretary of Environmental and Natural Resources (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, SEMARNAT) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF) affirmed that many wildlife trafficking cases can be linked to organized crime networks. 

Another environmental crime that continues to raise alarm is illegal logging. Statistics compiled by PROFEPA suggest that illegal logging carried out by criminal groups is increasing. In 2020 alone, Mexico suffered the loss of around 127,770 hectares of forest due to illegal logging, an amount greater than the total deforestation recorded between 2010 and 2015.  Heightened interest in the illegal timber trade has not only generated increased fighting between criminal groups in places like Chihuahua, but it has also had a devastating impact on the natural environment in areas in which it occurs. According to Rodrigo de la Garza, a geology professor at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua (Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua), the accelerated growth of illegal logging has begun to result in desertification in previously forested areas of the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range in western Chihuahua. 

Diversification of Illicit Economies

The steady expansion of criminal organizations into illicit activities related to the environment and wildlife is consistent with the broader diversification of criminal enterprises that has been observed in recent years. Although organized crime groups in Mexico have been traditionally associated with drug trafficking, criminal actors have increasingly broadened the scope of illicit activities through which they earn profits. The factors driving diversification are diverse, but one widely cited reason is that as larger criminal organizations in Mexico fragment and splitter into increasingly smaller groups, criminal networks become more localized and therefore turn to revenue sources that “require no supply chains and have very low barriers to entry.” Another possible cause is that stringent enforcement actions by authorities against drug trafficking have reduced profits and increased risks, thereby compelling criminal groups to explore new and emerging revenue sources.

As has been seen with the larger phenomenon of diversification, the increasing visibility of environmentally-related crimes in Mexico is another demonstration of organized crime groups’ ability to remain adaptable and resilient. In the absence of comprehensive efforts to build and sustain the rule of law in Mexico, criminal economies that negatively impact the environment, like totoaba poaching, may continue to emerge and grow in the country.

Sources:

“NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010.” Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente. December 30, 2010. 45.  

Miranda, Fanny. “Buche de totoaba alcanza los 100 mil dólares por kilo; ya supera a la cocaína.” Milenio. December 11, 2019. 

Esberg, Jane. “Más que carteles: contando las organizaciones delictivas de México.” International Crisis Group. May 8, 2020. 

“‘La cocaína del mar’: los buches de la totoaba, el pez mexicano afrodisíaco por el que se pagan fortunas.” Clarín. May 20, 2020. 

Calderón, Laura Y., Heinle, Kimberly, Kuckertz, Rita E. et al. “Organized Crime and Violence

in Mexico 2020 Special Report.” Justice in Mexico. July 2020. 46-47. 

Urbina, Ian. “Unmasking China’s invisible fleet.” CBC News. July 23, 2020. 

Beittel, June S. “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Congressional Research Service. July 28, 2020. 28-29. 

Ford, Alessandro. “Ruge el tráfico de vida silvestre en Ciudad de México.” InSight Crime. January 4, 2021. 

Ramos, Randall. “Violence in Western Chihuahua Driven by Heightened Cartel Rivalry.” Justice in Mexico. February 22, 2021. 

Smith, Zak et al. “Re: Mexico’s New Fishing Regulations Applicable to CITES Totoaba and Vaquita Decisions 18.292-18.295.” Center for Biological Diversity. April 1, 2021. 

Zauzeta Zauzeta, Ernesto. “Sigue aumentando el tráfico de especies, y muchos seguimos en la lucha para contenerlo.” Debate. May 1, 2021. 

“‘Los Chapitos’ en San Felipe.” Zeta Tijuana. June 7, 2021. 

Méndez, Ernesto. “Puedes comer Totoaba por 350 pesos… es legal si es de cautiverio.” Excelsior. July 1, 2021. 

Sánchez, Paloma. “Tala ilegal acaba con fertilidad de bosques.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. July 7, 2021. 

Huerta, Juan Carlos. “Tala clandestina: el ‘macizo’ negocio del crimen organizado en México.” El Financiero. July 18, 2021. 

“Operation Fake Gold: The Totoaba Supply Chain – From Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels to China’s Totoaba Maw Wholesalers.” Earth League International. July 24, 2021. 

“Semarnat y la UIF buscan combatir delitos ambientales ligados al crimen organizado.” Sin Embargo. July 29, 2021. 

“FGR asegura inmuebles utilizados para el tráfico de especies marinas protegidas en San Felipe.” Zeta Tijuana. August 12, 2021. 


Enciso, Angélica & Castillo, Gustavo. “Asegura la Femdo cuatro inmuebles con enseres que atentan contra vaquita marina.” La Jornada. August 13, 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. 

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.

Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda Arrested by U.S. Officials

10/19/20 (written by rkuckertz) – In a move that shocked Mexican citizens and officials alike, U.S. authorities arrested former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda on Thursday, October 15 just after he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with his family. He was taken into custody after U.S. officials indicted him on various drug trafficking-related counts, including conspiracy to import and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The arrest sent shockwaves through Mexico, as Cienfuegos (also known as “El Padrino”) is the first high-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States in connection with drug trafficking and organized crime.

General Cienfuegos was a member of Mexico’s armed forces for 54 years and served as Mexico’s defense minister under President Enrique Peña Nieto from December 1, 2012 to November 30, 2018. Throughout his tenure as head of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), he was tasked with the military’s fight against organized crime. During this time, Cienfuegos defended military personnel against accusations of human rights violations, particularly in the widely-publicized extrajudicial killings in Tlatlaya and Iguala (2014). Notably, the former defense minister repeatedly refused to allow investigators to interview soldiers involved in these massacres. Nonetheless, he was thought by the public to be committed to the fight against organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times reports, he once denounced drug traffickers who attacked military personnel as “sick, insane beasts.”

Charges and Evidence against Cienfuegos

The charges against Cienfuegos were brought before a Brooklyn grand jury on August 14, 2019, on which day U.S. Magistrate Judge Vera M. Scanlon issued an arrest warrant. On Friday, Cienfuegos appeared before a court by videoconference to hear the charges against him: three charges of conspiracy to manufacture, import, and distribute narcotics and one count of money laundering. He is currently being held without bail in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, California as he awaits his next court appearance on Tuesday, October 20. Notably, Cienfuegos obtained legal representation from defense attorney Duane Lyons—the same attorney representing Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, who was also arrested last year by U.S. officials in connection with drug trafficking.

Specific evidence obtained against Cienfuegos includes thousands of Blackberry messages exchanged between the former defense minister and members of the H-2 cartel, a successor organization to the Beltran Leyva cartel. The messages directly implicate Cienfuegos in assisting H-2 with its criminal operations, including facilitating drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border and introducing H-2 members to Mexican officials willing to receive bribes in exchange for cooperation with criminal actors. In addition, Cienfuegos allegedly informed H-2 members of ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations into the organized crime group (OCG). As a result, H-2 was able to expand its operations throughout the state of Sinaloa with little inference from Mexico’s military.

Mexico’s Response

Mexican officials were not made aware of U.S. plans to charge Cienfuegos until after his arrest. In response to the news, President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) stressed that the Mexican government had not investigated Cienfuegos because it was not made aware of any evidence or complaints against the former defense minister. Nonetheless, López Obrador warned that anyone involved in the case against Cienfuegos that currently serves in the Mexican government or in SEDENA would be immediately removed and placed in the hands of authorities. The president also noted that Cienfuegos is the second high-ranking Mexican security official to be arrested in the United States since last year when Genaro García Luna was arrested on similar charges in Dallas, Texas. López Obrador characterized these arrests as evidence of rampant corruption under former President Enrique Peña Nieto.

However, President López Obrador emphasized a stark contrast between his predecessors and his own administration. He defended both SEDENA and the Mexican navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) as institutions that have assisted the government in the crucial task of ensuring Mexico’s public security. As AMLO stated, “[SEDENA and SEMAR] are institutions fundamental to the development of our country, pillars of the state, and they are so strong that not even matters such as the involvement of a secretary of defense in cases of drug trafficking can weaken them” [author’s translation].

Most recently, AMLO has attempted to separate his own administration from the corruption of past administrations by introducing a referendum to the Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de México, SCJN) that would allow former presidents to be charged for criminal conduct committed while in office. Approved by the court, the referendum will be put before the public for a vote in June 2021.

The Role of Mexico’s Military in the Fight Against Organized Crime

Despite AMLO’s reassurances, Cienfuegos’ arrest comes at a time when Mexican civil society groups and international organizations express grave concern regarding the expanding role of Mexico’s military in security operations.

This trend toward militarization of public security operations began prior to President López Obrador’s term. In 2017, Mexico passed a law affirming the military’s role in the fight against organized crime. Condemned by the United Nations and various human rights organizations, the law allowed Mexico to deploy soldiers to regions under the control of OCGs. Critics argued that the bill gave broad powers to the military that superseded the Mexican Constitution. In their view, the bill allowed the president to act unilaterally, militarizing any part of the country without clear limits or an exit strategy.

Under the current administration, AMLO has continued the expansion of militarized operations. As a cornerstone of his anti-corruption platform, López Obrador sought to overhaul the federal policing system, replacing it with the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). This new security institution recruited over 100,000 troops from both the military and former Federal Police. In AMLO’s view, the National Guard would be incorruptible and significantly more effective in counter-OCG operations. However, after a year of operation, skeptics continue to warn that the use of military-like tactics will cause human rights violations to continue unchecked.

In addition, Reforma points out that individuals directly connected to the former defense minister Cienfuegos continue to operate within Mexico’s security apparatus. In particular, General André Foullon, who serves as SEDENA’s sub-secretary and was considered to be part of Cienfuegos’ inner circle, previously commanded the third region (Tercera Región) consisting of the state of Sinaloa—the same region where Cienfuegos allegedly protected the H-2 cartel. Reforma identified several other current military officials who had close ties to Cienfuegos—individuals that U.S. officials believed would have assisted Cienfuegos in evading authorities if he were released.

While it remains to be seen whether other SEDENA officials will be implicated in Cienfuegos’ crimes, recent data demonstrate that the Mexican public holds a generally-favorable view of the military. In 2017, a Parametría poll showed that six of every ten Mexicans agreed that the military should continue to operate throughout Mexico in response to organized crime. The poll also found that the public viewed the military as one of the country’s most trusted institutions. However, given increasing criticism and the news of Cienfuegos’ arrest, it remains to be seen whether Mexico will continue to entrust its military institutions with the fight against organized crime.

Sources:

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