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.


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.

The Peña Nieto administration: a year in review

01/02/14 – (by cmolzahn) During his campaign and the initial stages of his presidency, President Enrique Peña Nieto promised Mexicans a change in the government’s organized crime strategy, pledging a more creative, less improvisational approach to the ongoing security crisis in certain areas of the country. Nevertheless, his administration has reacted to the worsening public security situation particularly in the Pacific states of Michoacán and Guerrero with a 50% increase in soldiers deployed to carry out public security forces, with several municipalities currently under the control of the Mexican armed forces. According to a report in La Jornada, the 50% increase in soldiers deployed along with a 20% increase in Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) agents involved in public security operations have not translated to a significant decrease in organized crime activity.

President Enrique Peña Nieto (right) takes office in December 2012 from former President Felipe Calderón (left). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President Enrique Peña Nieto (right) takes office in December 2012 from former President Felipe Calderón (left). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While official data points to a decrease in homicides in 2013 as compared with the previous year, rates of extortions and kidnappings are up in 2013 as compared with 2012. Between December 2012 and October 2013 there were 7,300 complaints of extortion, 606 more than during the same period a year prior. Moreover, Mexico’s National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) reported that during the first eleven months of 2013 there were 1,583 kidnappings reported to state attorney general’s offices, up from 1,196 during the same period in 2012, representing a 32% increase. The states with the highest incidence of kidnapping in 2013 have been Guerrero, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Morelos, the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex), Veracruz and Tabasco. Of these, Guerrero reported the greatest increase in kidnappings, surging from 69 reported cases in 2012 to 228 during 2013.

In November 2012, Peña Nieto presented his organized crime strategy, which was to involve dividing the country into five regions and the creation of specialized police units to address security issues particular to individual regions, but this proposal has yet to materialize. He also proposed the creation of a National Gendarmerie (Gendarmería Nacional), a police force of 40,000 soldiers from the Army (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) and Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) but with a civilian command, dedicated exclusively to combating crime in the municipalities, which have proven most susceptible to corruption by organized crime groups. The intention was for the Gendarmerie to eventually replace the Mexican armed forces in the public security role they have acquired during the past two presidential administrations. In his first meeting with the National Security Council (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad), however, Peña Nieto announced that the corporation would be launched with 10,000 agents. In June, the initial police body was further scaled back to 5,000, none of which will be soldiers, likely because of resistance from the Mexican armed forces to relinquish highly trained soldiers. Recruits must pass a rigorous series of physical, psychological and confidence exams, which, while universally accepted as a positive, makes finding qualified individuals outside of the armed forces particularly challenging. Moreover, it was revealed that despite initial proposals, the Gendarmerie would be made an additional division of the Federal Police, as opposed to an autonomous agency. The initial contingent of the Gendarmerie is scheduled to be fully operational in July 2014, though Public Security Secretary (Comisionado Nacional de Seguridad) Manuel Mondragón y Kalb announced in December that agents are already operating in tourist areas of Acapulco, the city of Puebla, and Monterrey, as well as several municipalities in the State of Mexico and the Federal District (Distrito Federal, DF).

Eduardo Guerrero, director of public policy consulting group Lantia Consultores, said that the National Gendarmerie was launched without a clear idea of what they would accomplish, a fact he considers unfortunate given the need for a stronger state presence in the rural municipalities. Guerrero believes that in order to be effective, the force must be oriented toward preventing crime, for which the proposed number of agents will be insufficient. Moreover, the federal budget allocated just $4.5 billion pesos ($344 million USD) for the Gendarmerie for 2014, less than 10% of that allocated to the Mexican Army, and roughly 18% of the Navy’s share.

Guerrero’s lack of confidence in the government’s methodology is shared by many Mexicans. According to polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, Peña Nieto had the lowest approval rating entering office (54%) since Ernesto Zedillo in 1994 (42%). His approval rating has since fallen to 49.7%, also the lowest after a year of presidency since Zedillo (43.3%). This low perception of both the security situation in Mexico and of the government’s willingness or ability to confront it has resulted in an unprecedented wave of vigilante groups, particularly in the Pacific states of Guerrero and Michoacán. As a result, 47 of Michoacán’s 113 municipalities have felt the presence of such groups, with their presence continuing to spread, despite the state and federal governments’ continued insistence that they would not. Eduardo Guerrero said that a force like the Gendarmerie adequately staffed and funded and properly implemented will be required to gain the public trust and counter the presence of such groups, and estimates that it will take between eight and 12 months to create the ties with communities necessary to evaluate and respond to their specific security challenges.

Despite these setbacks, the Peña Nieto administration can claim some success during its first full calendar year. Through November, the official number of intentional homicides during Peña Nieto’s tenure was 18,454, down from 21,728 cases from December 2011 through November 2012, a 15% decline. It must be noted, though, that homicides were already in decline during the final months of the Calderón administration; between October 2012 and October 2013 there was a decline of just 3.2%, while the decline in the monthly average of homicides during the last four months of 2012 (which includes one month of Peña Nieto’s administration) and all of 2013 was less than 1%. It is also important to point out that 2012’s numbers were revised upward in May of 2013, as will likely be the case for 2013’s data. Moreover, this spring the Mexican government made the decision to stop differentiating organized crime-related homicides, making it difficult to accurately gauge success in that arena. In the fight against organized crime, several high-profile arrests have been made under Peña Nieto’s watch, including Javier Torres Félix and Manuel Aguirre Galindo of the Arellano Félix cartel; and Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, leader of the Zetas criminal organization. Also arrested during Peña Nieto’s first year were Mario Armando Ramírez Treviño, leader of the Gulf Cartel; and Marcelino Ticante Castro, considered one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s highest-ranking members. Nevertheless, overall organized crime-related arrests are down nearly 33% from 2012.

According to a document the Attorney Genera’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) submitted to the Associated Press, recent anti-cartel efforts have dealt the biggest blow to the Zetas criminal organization. It also details 12 separate drug trafficking organizations operating in Mexico, including several little-known groups, such as the Cartel del Poniente, and the La Corona and Los Rojos criminal organizations. The AP requested the document detailing cartel leaders sought after, captured or killed during the Peña Nieto administration. After losing an appeal before the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Protection of Data (Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos, IFAI), the Mexican government turned the document over, though omitted the names of the 53 capos from the list of 122 still being sought after. Of the 69 cartel leaders captured, Los Zetas were by far the hardest hit, suffering 23 arrested and four killed. This focus on the Zetas was consistent with former President Calderón’s priorities, and comes as no shock to security experts. “It doesn’t surprise me, since the final two years of the Calderón government, the Mexican government focused on combating Los Zetas, which are the most violent against the population in general,” said Jorge Chabat, security and organized crime expert at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE). The second most-impacted group was the Cártel del Poniente, which operates primarily in the northern states of Coahuila and Durango. 17 of its members were detained. The Sinaloa Cartel led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán followed with seven arrests and two killed.

Security analysts Rodrigo Salazar of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Flasco) and César Velázquez of the Iberian-American University (Universidad Iberoamericana) agree that despite his campaign promises, there has been no significant change in public security strategy between the administrations of former President Calderón and Peña Nieto, both of which center around the use of the military to respond to organized crime activity. Both analysts commented that the most notable change has been a shift in discourse, with the Peña Nieto administration addressing organized crime violence much less in the media than that of Calderón who, according to Salazar, had a communications strategy “centered in the war [against drug trafficking],” which he characterizes as “one of Calderón’s most dramatic errors.”



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Vigilante groups continue expansion in western state of Michoacán


The Mexican government has sent in 1,000 more soldiers to Michoacán. Photo: Juan José Estrada, Cuartoscuro.

11/30/13 – Self-defense groups in November continued their expansion in the troubled Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, where the federal government has sent thousands of soldiers and agents of the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) in an attempt to restore order to the area. The situation has sparked fierce debate in the nation’s capital regarding how to best address the challenge, while underscoring the extent to which criminal organizations have expanded their own presence in the state. According to the newspaper Proceso, self-defense groups have appeared in at least 13 Mexican states, most notably in Guerrero and Michoacán, though they have also been detected in Chiapas, Chihuahua, the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex), Jalisco, Morelos, Oaxaca, Puebla, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz. What most of the groups have in common is that they are found in relatively poor, rural areas where state and federal authorities have little or no presence, and municipal police forces are weak and/or susceptible to influence from organized crime.

Despite the state and federal governments’ insistence that the groups would not spread any further, self-defense groups have expanded their presence to seven municipalities in the mountainous Tierra Caliente region in response to increased activity from organized crime groups in the area, principally the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios). In mid-November, Mexico Attorney General José Murillo and Michoacán Governor Fausto Vallejo said they would not allow further expansion of the groups, but a week later there were reports of blockades around four communities where there was previously no presence of self-defense forces. Armed confrontations have broken out in recent weeks between groups claiming to be self-defense forces and presumed organized crime members. During the last week of November, three Federal Police officers were killed in two separate incidents. Two were killed and 13 others wounded when a PF convoy was ambushed on November 26 in the Parácuaro municipality. Three days later, immediately after self-defense groups had announced their expansion to four new communities, the body of a third PF officer was found in a parking lot in the center of Apatzingán, the municipality that has drawn the most attention of community police groups and authorities alike.

In response to the deteriorating security situation in western Michoacán, the Mexican government sent an additional 1,000 soldiers to the area to reinforce the already sizeable military presence around Apatzingán. The Mexican Army (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) has taken over operations of the Vista Hermosa, Lázaro Cárdenas, and Apatzingán municipalities in the Tierra Caliente region, while Governor Vallejo has taken a strong stance against the community police groups. Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong has said that the federal forces will remain in the state until rule of law in the state has been restored.


Luisa Maria Calderón.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Some groups, like those in Guerrero connected to the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, CRAC), are well established, dating back as far as the mid-1990s when that group formed; while others were created much more recently, and more ad-hoc than those comprising CRAC. Still others—particularly in Michoacán—are feared to have ties to organized crime groups. Regardless of their origins and intentions, the persistence and expansion of these groups are either a symptom of, or reaction to, the federal, state, and local governments’ inability to adequately respond to a worsening public security crisis in the affected areas. Making matters worse, El Universal reported that two federal senators revealed to the newspaper that representatives of the Knights Templar were admitted to the Mexican Senate to discuss the public security situation in Michoacán. One of those present, Luisa María Calderón of the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN) and sister of former President Felipe Calderón, said she did not know who had admitted the individuals in question. Nevertheless, on October 17, a group of ten people, which included community and business leaders from Apatzingán representing a group calling itself the Michoacan Peace and Dignity Association (Asociación Michoacanos, Paz y Dignidad), met with members of the Senate. This group is headed by Tito Emigdio Fernández Torres, who military authorities as well as the Federal Police have reportedly identified as forming part of the Knights Templar’s political and business wing. According to a military report, Fernández had ties to former La Familia Michoacana leader Nazario Moreno, and has led a media campaign in the area to discredit the Federal Police and Mexican Army, accusing them of systematic human rights violations. Calderón said that when the senators realized who the individuals were, many left the meeting, and expressed concern that they must have connections within the Senate that allowed them free access. For his part, Fernández and the group he leads have denied any criminal associations, and said they would seek the removal of Luisa María Calderón from office, who he said has her own ties to Michoacán’s community police groups.

Regardless of the veracity of the allegations against Fernández, the worsening security situation in Michoacán has rekindled the debate over whether the Mexican’ government’s inability, or unwillingness, to control criminal activity in certain parts of the national territory constitutes a “failed state.” It is a term that was often circulated in the media during the initial surge in cartel-related violence during the Calderón administration (2006-2012). Since then, however, criminal groups have diversified their activities to include extortion, oil theft, and kidnapping. Now, according to the Associated Press, drug trafficking organizations have now made inroads into Mexico’s iron ore mining industry, integrating themselves even deeper into the national economy. On November 4, the Mexican military occupied Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán, the country’s second-largest port, in order to cut off export of illegally obtained iron ore to China, principally by the Knights Templar. Federal officials have reportedly been aware of the problem since 2010, when that group’s predecessor, La Familia Michoacana, carried out the same practice. Last month, individuals believed to belong to the Knights Templar attacked power stations in the same region of western Michoacán, leaving 11 towns without power in an unprecedented attack on national infrastructure. Meanwhile, PAN leaders in the Mexican Senate are pushing for a constitutional reform that would allow for the forced removal of state officials, particularly Governor Vallejo, who belongs to President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). Perhaps most troubling, though, is the loss of faith in authorities to offer protection to a beleaguered citizenry that has opened space for the emergence of the self-defense groups, which voices ranging from the Mexican government to the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) have acknowledged as incompatible with the rule of law. For these reasons, the current situation in Michoacán perhaps presents the greatest challenge yet for the federal government in the ongoing struggle with criminal organizations.

In related news, human rights groups are working with the family of a woman from Seattle, Washington who was arrested in August in the state of Guerrero. She was the leader of a self-defense group claiming to be protecting the Olinala indigenous community in Guerrero against drug trafficking organizations and police corruption. The state of Guerrero has legal provisions allowing these groups to operate, but state authorities arrested the woman, Nestora Salgado (41), on kidnapping charges. Salgado’s family has turned to the International Human Rights Clinic at the Seattle University School of Law for help in the case. The group filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention based in Geneva. Along with Salgado’s family, the Human Rights Clinic has argued that Salgado’s detention was politically motivated. Salgado was accused of kidnapping in connection with the arrest of a group of teen girls her organization believed to be involved in drug deals; and of a local official for the alleged attempted theft of a cow at the scene of a double killing. Salgado is a U.S. citizen who moved to the United States when she was around 20 years old. Beginning around 2000, she reportedly began returning to Olinala periodically with donations, becoming increasingly involved in the community’s security situation and eventually heading up the community defense group.



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“Godfather” of Mexican drug trafficking released from prison

Rafael Caro Quintero. Photo: DEA International Fugitives.

Rafael Caro Quintero. Photo: DEA International Fugitives.

08/12/13 – Rafael Caro Quintero (61), one of the most important kingpins in Mexican history and once considered one of the godfathers of drug trafficking, was released on Friday, August 9, from the Puente Grande prison after serving 28 years for the kidnapping, torture, and killing of undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. Caro Quintero was originally captured in San José, Costa Rica in 1985 during an operation launched by the DEA after he allegedly fled from Mexico with support from Mexican authorities.

Originally sentenced to serve 40 years in prison, Caro Quintero’s early release came after a federal judge found him wrongfully prosecuted and tried by federal authorities for the killing of Kiki Camarena. According to the judge, the sentencing by a federal court was in breach of Mexican law because the DEA agent was acting undercover with no diplomatic or consular status; hence the crime was a regular homicide under state jurisdiction and the federal courts had no authority to prosecute and try the case. Caro Quintero was acquitted of other charges against him and already served the time in prison for the only other crime he was originally found guilty of—drug production and trafficking.

Caro Quintero, who once offered to pay the Mexican foreign debt if released from prison, is one of the founders—along with Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo “Don Neto”—of the Guadalajara Cartel, the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s. Known as the first generation of Mexican drug traffickers, after the arrest of the “Godfathers” the Guadalajara Cartel split into new organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel—that grew to be the most powerful during the 1990s and after.

The kidnapping and killing of Kiki Camarena was allegedly planned and executed by Caro Quintero in coordination with Felix Gallardo and Don Neto after DEA investigations led to a major bust of the “El Búfalo” ranch in Chihuahua in 1984. The operation that led to the seizure of around 1,000 hectares of mariguana plantations allegedly cost Caro Quintero—owner of the ranch—around $8 billion (USD). Kiki Camarena was kidnapped on February 7, 1985, along with his Mexican pilot, Alfredo Avelar, in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. Both victims were tortured and killed, and their bodies found almost a month later in the neighboring state of Michoacán. After pressure from the U.S. Government, Caro Quintero was arrested in Costa Rica on April 4, 1985; Don Neto in Puerto Vallarta on April 7, 1985; and Felix Gallardo in Guadalajara on April 8, 1989. These operations also led to the arrest of almost 100 police officers from municipal and state agencies, as well as from the Federal Direction of Security (Dirección Federal de Seguridad, DFS) and the Judicial Federal Police (Policía Judicial Federal, PJF). The three kingpins then accused each other of being responsible for the killing of Camarena.

After the DEA murder, a period of tension rose between the United States and Mexico. U.S. authorities denounced the corruption of Mexican security agencies such as the DFS and the PJF, at the same time that U.S. authorities were conducting operations in breach of Mexican sovereignty, such as the abduction of Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain who was prosecuted in the United States for assisting in Kiki Camarena’s torture. Although Alvarez Machain was acquitted, his case before U.S. courts later became an important precedent for international jurisdiction. It is believed that the pressure by the United States not only led to the capture of the Guadalajara Cartel leaders, but also to the dismantling of the DFS—the political police of the Mexican government—, which was formally dismantled in May 1985 after its involvement the year before in the planning and murder of award-winning Mexican journalist Manuel Buendía.

As reported by the Justice in Mexico Project, there has been a recent chill in security cooperation between Mexico and the United States, and the release of Caro Quintero has been perceived as a significant setback to Mexico in its war against organized crime. The DEA said it was “deeply troubled” and “extremely disappointed” by the Mexican court’s decision and immediately placed Caro Quintero at the top of the most wanted international criminals. The agency announced that it will seek the extradition of Caro Quintero to be prosecuted in the United States after an initial petition was denied by Mexican authorities. According to international media, the release could potentially raise new “tensions” between the two governments, though Mexican authorities suggested an eventual extradition could be granted if their U.S. counterparts are able to substantiate the request.


EFE. “Detenido Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, jefe de la ‘mafia’ de la droga Mexicana.” El País. April 11, 1985.

Rohter, Larry. “Mexicans arrest top drug figure and 80 policemen.” New York Times. April 11, 1989.

Justice in Mexico Project. “Chill in bi-lateral collaboration over security.” News Monitor Vol. 8, No. 4. April – July, 2013.

Associated Press. “Mexico drug kingpin Caro Quintero ordered released on appeal after 28 years.” Washington Post. August 9, 2013.

“El narcotraficante Rafael Caro Quintero queda libre tras obtener un amparo.” CNN México. August 9, 2013.

Castillo, Gustavo. “Absolvió tribunal a Caro Quintero de asociación delictuosa: Judicatura.” La Jornada. August 9, 2013.

SINEMBARGO. “Advierte prensa extranjera nueva tensión México-EU.” Noreste. August 10, 2013.

Associated Press. “U.S. furious over freeing of Mexican drugs baron Rafael Caro Quintero.” The Guardian. August 10, 2013.

Carrasco Arizaga, Jorge. “Una cadena de fallas puso en la calle a Caro Quintero.” Proceso. August 10, 2013.

Esquivel, J. Jesús. “Pasada la sorpresa, el gobierno, dispuesto a la extradición.” Proceso. August 10, 2013.

Federal government to “rescue” Michoacán

Residents of La Ruana cheered as Mexican army soldiers enter the town to help defend them against a drug cartel. Photo: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press.

Residents of La Ruana cheered as soldiers in the Mexican army enter the town to help defend against drug cartels. Photo: Marco Ugarte, Associated Press

05/23/13 – After an increasing wave of violence and insecurity, the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the launching of a new operation to combat organized crime in the state of Michoacán. This major operation, the first of its kind since Peña Nieto assumed presidency in December 2012, started with the deployment of the Army and the Navy to the state in mid-May and with the appointment of a new public security chief, Army General Alberto Reyes Vaca. Although the number of troops deployed will not be disclosed, the federal government assured that the troops would not be withdrawn until the security situation in Michoacán improves.

Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, head of the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), indicated that this operation will deploy troops from the Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) and the Ministry of Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), who will be supported by state and municipal governments. Michoacán’s interim governor, Jesús Reyna García,—who replaced Fausto Vallejo Figueroa for health reasons—argued that the operation will start in the municipalities of Apatzingán, Aquila, Buenavista, Chinicuila, Coahuayana, Los Reyes, and Tancítaro, most of which are in a region known as Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land,” and will gradually progress to others.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Michoacán was probably chosen because it was fast spiraling into chaos.” The state has experienced a surge of violence and insecurity caused primarily by the criminal organization known as the Knights Templar, which is involved not only in drug trafficking, but also in extortion, and the targeting of businesses through arson and the killing of business owners if they refuse to pay for protection. According to inhabitants, this group has cut off the supply of fuel and food in some towns, and has forbid its residents from accessing it elsewhere. As a result, several “self-defense” groups (grupos de autodefensa), which are often referred to as community police forces, composed of unmasked town settlers have “increasingly banded together […] chasing off corrupt cops and setting up checkpoints along the highways to sniff out traffickers,” describes the Washington Post. Although the number of community forces appearing throughout Michoacán has increased, as seen in the municipality of Aria de Rosales in mid-May, some of the groups have begun to cede control over the municipalities to the federal troops, like in Buenavista, Coalcoman, and Tepalcatepec.

Coincidentally, former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) started his presidency with the launch of a major security operation on December 18, 2006, only days after taking office, to restore order and fight police corruption in Michoacán, his native state. Joint Operation Michoacán (Operación Conjunta Michoacán) included troops and agents from the Army, the now-extinct Federal Investigative Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigaciones, AFI), and the Federal Preventive Police (Policia Federal Preventiva, PFP)—now known as the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF). The operation followed requests for federal crime-fighting assistance from Michoacán Govenor Lázaro Cárdenas after high-profile drug violence threatened the rule of law in parts of the state. At the time, the state struggled with controlling internal conflicts between drug-trade organizations such as the Gulf Cartel, the Valencia Cartel, and the recently emerged organization, La Familia Michoacana (LFM). Calderón’s operation was the first movement towards a large-scale strategy to fight organized crime head on, and the first signal sent by the Calderón administration to criminal organizations. The strategy eventually led to the dismantling of the LFM, but also to the creation of the equally powerful Knights Templar from its splintered factions.


Rubí, Mauricio and Monroy, Jorge. “Michoacán con nueva estrategia a tres niveles.” El Economista. May 20, 2013.

“Autodefensas ceden el control de municipios al Ejército en Michoacán.” Univisión Noticias. May 21, 2013.

Wilkinson, Tracy. “Mexico launches military push to restore order in Michoacan state.” Los Angeles Times. May 21, 2013.

Miroff, Nick. “Soldiers re-occupy Mexico’s Hot Land.” The Washington Post. May 21, 2013.

Redacción. “De arranque, operativo de seguridad en Michoacán prioriza siete municipios.” Cambio de Michoacán. May 22, 2013.