Federal Authorities Arrest Military Officials for Past Violence

04/29/21 (written by scortez) – In two separate cases, military personnel have been arrested for their alleged involvement in past abductions and murders. On April 9, the Mexican Navy reported that they had turned over 30 marines to federal prosecutors for their alleged involvement in the 2018 string of forced disappearances in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. In another investigation, seven soldiers of the Mexican Army (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) were arrested on April 1 for their involvement in the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre.

Marines patrolling the streets of Nuevo Laredo. Photo by: Dylan Clark.

In the 2018 case, it is alleged that the marines are responsible for the forced disappearances of 36 individuals, including at least five minors. The marines were part of an anti-crime operation in which they rounded up individuals suspected of being involved in organized crime. Ericka Janeth Castro, a witness to the case, recounted that the marines raided a party with gunfire and forcefully abducted several men, including her husband who was never seen again. This is just one of the 47 disappearances that had been carried out in 2018 by this group of marines. At the time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the crimes as “horrific” and urged the federal government to investigate. It has been difficult for witnesses and family members to come forward because of their fear of retaliation from the military. According to Amnesty International, witnesses and family members of the disappeared have received threats, harassment, assaults, and abductions after filing complaints with the authorities. 

Not often seen, the Attorney General of Mexico (Fascalia General de la República, FGR) and Secretary of the Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) collaborated to execute the arrest and detention of the 30 soldiers involved. The soldiers of the elite armed forces group known as the Center for Analysis, Intelligence, and Studies of Tamaulipas (Centro de Análisis, Inteligencia y Estudios de Tamaulipas, CAIET) were arrested on charges of carrying out acts that were contrary to their duties. This event is not an isolated incident in the group’s history. Since then, other marines of the same elite armed forces group have been arrested for violent crimes. In January 2021, 12 marines were arrested for the massacre of 19 migrants in Camargo, Tamaulipas. The CAIET marines have had a frequent capacity to act above the law in the state of Tamaulipas. 

Rearresting the Suspects behind the 2014 Tlatlaya Massacre

Just over a week before the 30 soldiers were detained in Nuevo Laredo, seven soldiers of the army were arrested on April 1 for their involvement in the 2014 massacre of 22 suspected kidnappers in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex). The altercation began as a shootout between the suspects and soldiers that ended with the killing of the 22 suspects. Despite the fact that the suspects had already surrendered, the military executed the remaining eight individuals. In addition to the extrajudicial killings, the soldiers also tampered with the scene to conceal their involvement. 

Initially, the Mexican Army publicly denied the allegations that the soldiers executed the suspects and insisted that the victims were killed in the shoot out. After receiving public outcry, however, the army implemented the recommendations made by the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) in response to the human rights violations that had occurred. For example, in 2015, the involved officers were arrested, but were then quickly released after a federal judge ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to connect them to the crime. Rarely are armed forces held accountable in Mexico, a country with a notoriously high rate of impunity. Like prior presidents, the Peña Nieto Administration (2012-2018) was not known for holding the military responsible for crimes committed against civilians, as was the case with the Tlatlaya massacre. 

Nevertheless, in 2019, a court ordered that the soldiers be arrested again. It has taken the Mexican Army 16 months to turn them over to federal authorities. The Center for Human Rights Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez (Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez), which represents a woman whose daughter was killed in the massacre, confirmed that the soldiers had been arrested and the case against them remains open. In 2019, the human rights group said, “This ruling confirms what survivors and rights organizations have been saying for five years, that there were illegal executions…” The re-arrests are a step in the right direction towards imparting justice in the Tlatlaya massacre.

Learning from his Predecessors, AMLO Seeks Accountability

These arrests are part of continued efforts by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, to hold military personnel accountable for past crimes. These arrests are the most high-profile since January 2021 when members of the Mexican Army were arrested for their involvement in the 2014 Ayotzinapa disappearances. 

Since President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) launched the crackdown on the drug cartels in 2006, the army and the navy have played instrumental roles in carrying out the government’s security strategy. Yet this has not been without significant consequence to the protection of civilians’ human rights, as exemplified in the Nuevo Laredo and Tlatlaya cases. What more, the public security strategy across the presidential sexenios has failed to control the country’s notoriously high levels of crime and violence. Between 2006 and April 2021, 85,000 people disappeared in Mexico and in 2020 alone, there were over 34,000 victims of intentional homicide. 

In an effort to break with his predecessors, AMLO is working to slowly phase out the Mexican Army’s and Navy’s involvement in public security since he took office in December 2018. Under his leadership, the newly-formed National Guard (Guardia Nacional) is now charged with countering the cartels. The creation of the National Guard, however, was arguably just a rebranding strategy that put the military and police under a different name. It has been over three years since the 2018 Nuevo Laredo disappearances, and over seven years since the Tlatlaya massacre occurred. The AMLO administration’s arrests and re-arrests of suspected military officials in the two cases are an important step forward. 

Sources

“Mexico: Authorities’ claims of progress on disappearances in Nuevo Laredo ring hollow.” Amnesty International. July 31, 2018.

Stevenson, Mark. “Mexican court orders soldiers re-arrested in army massacre.” Associated Press. October 17, 2019.

Ferri, Pablo. “El Ejército mexicano detiene de nuevo a los militares implicados en el ‘caso Tlatlaya’.” El País. April 2, 2021.

“Búsqueda e Identificación de Personas Desaparecidas.” Subsecretaría de Derechos Humanos, Población y Migración. April 8, 2021.

“Mexico’s navy turns over 30 marines in disappearances cases.” Washington Post. April 12, 2021.

“Mexico arrests 30 marines over disappearances in Tamaulipas.” BBC News. April 13, 2021.

Pradilla, Alberto. “Víctimas esperaron tres años por la detención de 30 marinos señalados por desapariciones.” Animal Político. April 13, 2021.

“Mexico charges 30 marines over forced disappearances in border city.” Reuters. April 15, 2021.

Mosso, Rubén. “FGR califica de ejemplar la colaboración de Ojeda Durán para detener a 30 de Marina.” Milenio. April 15, 2021.

Female Mayor of Jamapa is Kidnapped and Murdered

12/02/20 (written by vrice)— Florisel Ríos Delfín, Mayor of Veracruz’s Jamapa municipality, was kidnapped from her home late on November 10, 2020 by ten armed men. The mayor was found dead early the next morning in a rural area of Medellín de Bravo, a neighboring municipality. Police speculate that an organized criminal group was behind the attack. In Mexico, such violence against local mayors, former mayors, mayoral candidates, and alternate mayors has become increasingly frequent. Justice in Mexico’s (JIM) Laura Calderón argues that this violence threatens the democratic process and undermines rule of law.

Mayor Florisel Ríos Delfín. Photo: Expansión Política

A Disarmed Police Force and Accusations of Corruption

Ríos is the second female mayor murdered during the term of Cuitláhuac García Jiménez, current governor of Veracruz. Maricela Vallejo, the mayor of Veracruz’s Mixtla de Altamirano municipality, was murdered in April 2019 alongside her husband and driver. The Saturday before her murder, Mayor Ríos attended a meeting with all the other municipal presidents of Veracruz affiliated with the Revolutionary Democratic Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD). At the meeting, the mayor expressed feelings of being in danger and asked for help. In her last interview before the murder, she voiced similar sentiments of fearing for her life, which she attributed to the disarmament of local police and a municipal budget that was insufficient to pay for personal security. Veracruz Government Secretary Éric Cisneros Burgos had ordered for Jamapa police to be disarmed shortly before Ríos was killed because the majority of officers had been using firearms that were not  registered and approved by the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA). Therefore, the officers had been using the weapons illegally. In the week before her murder, Ríos met with Secretary Cisneros to request that she and her family receive state protection. Cisneros denied the request. 

Since she took office in 2018, Ríos’ term was marred by various scandals. Last July, the Captain of the Jamapa Municipal Police, Miguel de Jesús Castillo, accused the mayor of being involved in the disappearance of citizens. The Captain was later murdered and dismembered by what police suspect to be a criminal organization. Then, in January of this year, the Jamapa municipal palace was occupied for various months by protesters who demanded that dismissed workers be rehired. The occupiers also filed eight complaints with the Veracruz State Attorney General (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) against Ríos and other Jamapa government officials for mismanagement. Then, early this November, Ríos’ husband, Fernando Hernández Terán, now ex-president of Jamapa’s National System for Integral Family Development (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, DIF), was accused of diverting public funds. After the Veracruz FGE ordered for his arrest, Hernández went into hiding, where he remained at the time of Mayor Ríos’ murder.

Responses

In his daily morning press conference on November 12, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) mourned Mayor Ríos’ death and said that his administration has been attentive to the ongoing investigation. Local Jamapa politicians and leaders of the PRD, the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN), and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) also lamented Ríos’death. Veracruz PAN Senator Indira Rosales requested that Governor García clarify the circumstances of the murder and sanction those responsible. Leaders like Citlali Medellín Careaga (PRI mayor of Tamihua) and Viridiana Bretón Feito (PAN mayor of Ixhuatlán del Café) denounced and demanded justice for Rios’ murder. Via Twitter, Jesús Zambrano Grijalva, National President of the PRD, used the anti-femicide #NiUnaMenos hashtag to condemn Ríos’ murder and criticize Governor García’s administration. 

Additionally, Ángel Ávila, the PRD representative in the National Electoral Institute (Instituto Nacional Electoral, INE) took to social media to say that the Governor and Secretary Cisneros should stop threatening the PRD and instead “get to work.” Ávila also denounced Veracruz as a state that “doesn’t have a government.” For his part, the Governor released a video on Twitter sharing that his administration had requested for the FGE to accelerate investigation into Ríos’ death. The Veracruz Secreatariat of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP) shared via Twitter that air and ground surveillance operations had been launched in Jamapa and the surrounding area to investigate and find those culpable for the mayor’s murder. From his unknown location, Ríos’ husband published a Facebook message mourning his wife’s death and attributing unsafe conditions in Mexico to rampant organized crime. 

On November 16, Jamapa municipal employees along with dozens of citizens protested in the streets to demand justice for the mayor’s murder. Ríos’ children were also in attendance, including her daughter Yzayana Hernández Ríos, who has since taken over presidency of Jamapa’s DIF since her father’s removal. Yzayana said that she feared for the lives of herself and her siblings and reproached statements by Governor García, which she said blamed the Mayor for her own murder. Ríos’ daughter Yzayana also stated, “My mother was a very hardworking and honest woman, who day to day fought to improve this municipality” and accused Governor García of “re-victimizing” her mother.

The Assassination: An Exception or Endemic?

Thus far in 2020, four municipal public servants have been murdered. This violence is part of a larger pattern, exemplified in data from the National Association of Mayors (La Asociación Nacional de Alcaldes, ANAC), which found that 158 Mexican mayors were murdered from 2006-2019. Justice in Mexico’s research has documented the intentional homicide of at least 264 local politicians from 2002-2019, 98 of whom were murdered just from 2015-2019. While JIM’s analysis revealed a 26% decrease in the number of victims from 2018 to 2019, this past year of 2019 was the most violent for ex mayors, who accounted for 15 of the 25 total murders. 

Cases of intentional homicide against mayors, former mayors, and alternate mayors. 
Photo: Justice in Mexico

The killing of Mayor Ríos is consistent with other data Justice in Mexico has collected regarding violent conditions in Veracruz and the political affiliation of murdered mayors, former mayors, mayoral candidates, and alternate mayors. While significantly behind the PRI with 89 victims, those affiliated with the PRD—Mayor Ríos’ party—were murdered at the second highest rates of any party, with 40 victims from 2002-2019. Moreover, Justice in Mexico found that during this period, Veracruz reported the fourth highest murder rate of for the aformentioned local politicians. In 2019, Veracruz also recorded the second most murders of mayors, former mayors, mayoral candidates, and alternate mayors (3) nationwide, the highest number of femicides (157) and of officially reported kidnappings (298), and the fourth most cases of extortion (560). 

Justice in Mexico’s research has revealed the unique vulnerability of local politicians in Mexico. In 2019, it was revealed that Mexican mayors were 13 times more likely to be assassinated than the general public. The murder rate for mayors was 3.25 per 1,000 mayors, versus 0.24 per every 1,000 citizens amongst the general public. In a working paper by JIM’s Calderón, “An Analysis of Mayoral Assassinations in Mexico, 2000-17”, three potential hypotheses to explain mayoral murders are explored: a mayor’s perceived level of corruptibility (which influences how much organized crime groups view them as a threat), rates of drug production/trafficking in a state (violence is more concentrated in states with of such higher rates), greater vulnerability in more rural territories with less population density. To combat this violence, Calderón emphasizes: the responsibility of the federal government to provide sufficient budgets and adequately enforce federal protections; the fundamentality of strengthening state institutions with transnational justice processes to allow for democratic consolidation; and the necessity of implementing policies and social incentives to dissuade public participation in organized criminal activities as a means of survival.

Violence Against Women in Mexican Politics

The phenomenon of “political violence and political harassment against women,” seen across Latin America and the world, can be characterized by “behaviors that specifically target women as women to leave politics by pressuring them to step down as candidates or resign a particular political office” (Krook and Restrepo Sanín 2015, 127). Such behaviors may include, but are not limited to, acts of physical, symbolic, psychological, economic, and sexual violence—from kidnapping, rape, and murder to the spreading of false rumors, release of private photographs, and refusal of parties to fund female candidates’ campaigns (ibid, 138). 

For many years, Mexico’s General Law on Electoral Crimes failed to collect gender disaggregated data on acts of political violence. This meant that specific statistics for violence against female politicians, like Mayor Ríos, or against women trying to exercise their political rights were unavailable. The Mexican government has slowly taken strides to better protect women’s ability to participate in politics, but these have often not lived up to expectations. A 2008 reform aimed to increase female political participation by “requiring parties to earmark 2% of their public funding to activities supporting women’s leadership development” (ibid, 142). When parties’ accounts were reviewed in 2011, it was revealed that these funds had been used for alternative purposes, like “cleaning supplies, stationery, and fumigation services” (ibid). Even in 2013, when the INE introduced a set of guidelines on implementing the earmark, party leaders openly asked auditors how they could avoid adhering to the requirement (ibid). More recently, in October 2020, the INE unanimously endorsed guidelines for political parties to help combat gender-based political violence. Amongst other requirements, these stipulated that, beginning in 2021, no aspiring candidate can be convicted or accused of domestic violence, sexual misconduct, or have defaulted on alimony payments. 

In Mexico, gender-based political violence occurs in a greater context where women’s fundamental rights to life and security are routinely transgressed. In 2019, Mexico recorded the second highest absolute number of femicides in all of Latin America and the Caribbean at 983, a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 women. 

2019 femicide rates in Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain. Photo: Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean

This data is reflective of the increasing prevalence of femicide in the country, which from 2015 to 2019 saw a 139% increase, per Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP). These high rates are even more troubling given how in 2019 the impunity rate for femicide in Mexico was 51.4%. This impunity is not just restricted to cases of femicide, but rather is endemic in Mexico, seen by the country’s 89.6%  impunity rate for intentional homicides. The Mexican government has played a significant role in allowing rampant violence against women to continue. Of the 3,522 Public Ministry (Ministerio Público, MP) agencies in the country, only 177—less than 5%—are focused on addressing crimes against women. These few agencies are expected to handle an immense caseload, as 482 women report cases of familial violence each day—equivalent to about 20 cases each hour. Moreover, only 3.3% of these agencies focus on sexual crimes, and are expected to manage the more than 40,281 cases of such crimes that were registered from January to September 2020. The lack of resources and government employees to handle cases of violence against women in these few MP agencies contribute to high rates of femicide and impunity for these crimes. 

These dangerous conditions for Mexican women have only been exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19. El Sol Mexico estimated that two-thirds of women over 15 years of age in the country would be forced to quarantine with a violent partner. Moreover, during the eight months of lockdown thus far, the National Network of Shelters (Red Nacional de Refugios), which aids female victims of violence and their children, has provided services to over 34,716 women. These requests for help represent a 51% increase from the same period during 2019. The Network registered that 9%  of male aggressors (about 3,123 individuals) from whom women sought assistance had military or political ties. This data is particularly troubling given the role of male politicians in perpetrating violence against women in politics. In 2004, a female candidate running for municipal president of San José Estancia Grande (in the state of Oaxaca), Guadalupe Ávila Salinas, was shot dead by the sitting municipal president at that time (Krook and Restrepo Sanín 2015, 140). Other female municipal candidates have been kidnapped by their political opponents, in some instances, by opponents in collaboration with the female candidate’s own party and/or spouse (ibid). All of these rampant forms of violence against women in Mexican politics renders near gender parity in Congress more symbolic than actually indicative of equal rights and respect for women. If it is not telling enough that political gender quotas took 15 years to be implemented, female politicians continue to be discriminated against, prevented from presenting proposals, and denied essential campaign funds. Moreover, men continue to serve as the heads of important legislative bodies including the “Executive Board, Political Coordination Board, and 15 out of 16 party caucuses”.

Guadalupe Ávila Salinas. Photo: Crónica

Failing to address attacks against women in politics allows this kind of violence to continuously be construed as the “cost of doing politics” for women (Krook and Restrepo Sanín 2015, 145). Such an understanding normalizes endemic mistreatment of women both inside and outside the political sphere. As a result, violent acts against women in politics threaten the level and quality of democracy in Mexico and question to what degree women have truly been incorporated as full political actors in Mexico (Krook 2017, 74).

Sources

Jarquín Edgar, Soledad. “Asesinan a candidata perredista en Oaxaca.” Cimac Noticias. September 27, 2004. 

Cruz, Alfonso. “Alcalde del PRI mata a balazos a candidata del PRD en Oaxaca.” Crónica. September 28, 2004.

Krook, Mona Lena and Juliana Restrepo Sanín. “Gender and political violence

in Latin America Concepts, debates and solutions.” Politica y gobierno, vol. 13 no. 1, 2016, p.125-157. www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/pyg/v23n1/1665-2037-pyg-23-01-00127-en.pdf.

Krook, Mona Lena. “Violence Against Women in Politics.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 28 no. 1, 2017, p. 74-88. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0007.

“Violencia política contra las mujeres en razón de género.” CNDH México. 2018. 

Calderón, Laura. “An Analysis of Mayoral Assassinations in Mexico, 2000-17.” Justice in Mexico, Working Paper Series vol. 15 no. 1. January 2018.

“Mexico’s Female Legislators Are No Silver Bullet for Gender Inequality.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 4, 2018. 

“Femicide or feminicide.” Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean. 2019. 

De la Peña, Angélica. “El Covid-19 y la perspectiva de género.” El Sol de México. March 23, 2020. 

“Información sobre violencia contra las mujeres; Incidencia delictiva y llamadas de emergencia 9-1-1.” Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. April 30, 2020.

Calderón, Laura et al. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: 2020 Special Report.” Justice in Mexico. July 31, 2020.

Arteta, Itxaro. “Solo 4.2% de los MP se especializan en violencia contra mujeres; 100 municipios concentran 60% de feminicidios.” Animal Político. October 27, 2020. 

Arteta, Itxaro. “El 50% de las investigaciones de feminicidio en México no se resuelven, dice reporte.” Animal Político. November 10, 2020

“Asesinan a alcaldesa de Jamapa, Veracruz; la habían culpado por desapariciones.” Forbes México. November 11, 2020.

“Asesinan a Florisel Ríos, alcaldesa de Jamapa, Veracruz.” Animal Político. November 11, 2020.  

Hernández, Kenia and Isabel Zamudio. “Asesinan a alcaldesa de Jamapa, Veracruz.” Milenio. November 11, 2020.

“La alcaldesa de Jamapa, en Veracruz, es asesinada.” Expansión Política. November 11, 2020.

Zavaleta, Noé. “Plagian y asesinan a la alcaldesa de Jamapa, en Veracruz.” Proceso. November 11, 2020.  

Flores, Danytza. “En Jamapa, donde mataron a la alcaldesa, la policía está desarmada.” Diario de Xalapa. November 12, 2020. 

Gómez, Eirinet and Georgina Saldierna. “Secuestran y asesinan en Veracruz a la edil de Jamapa.” La Jornada. November 12, 2020.

“Policía de Jamapa fue desarmada por irregularidades en uso de la licencia de armas.” Aristegui Noticias. November 12, 2020. 

Rice, Veronica. “The INE Takes Strides Against Gender Based Violence.” Justice in Mexico. November 12, 2020. 

Rodríguez García, Arturo. “El presidente lamenta asesinatos de periodista y alcaldesa.” Proceso. November 12, 2020. 

“Slain mayor had appealed for help before her murder.” Mexico News Daily. November 12, 2020. 

Zavaleta, Noé. “Alcaldesas de Veracruz repudian asesinato de la edil de Jamapa.” Proceso. November 12, 2020. 

Calderón, Laura. “Violencia criminal contra ediles en México.” Animal Político. November 16, 2020.

Zavaleta, Noé. “Protestan en Jamapa por asesinato de alcaldesa; su hija reprocha criminalización.” Proceso. November 16, 2020. 

Arteta, Itxaro. “En 8 meses de pandemia, refugios para mujeres violentadas han atendido 51% más solicitudes de ayuda.” Animal Político. November 20, 2020.

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:

“Blackberry Messages, the Key to the Arrest of ‘The Godfather’ Cienfuegos.” The Yucatán Times. 18 October, 2020.

“La caída del general Cienfuegos: el recuento.” Aristegui Noticias. 17 October, 2020.

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“Persiste en Sedena mano de Cienfuegos.” Reforma. 17 October, 2020.

Agren, David. “Former Mexico Defence Minister Arrested on Drug Charges in Los Angeles.” The Guardian. 16 October, 2020.

Ahmed, Azam. “Mexico’s Former Defense Minister Is Arrested in Los Angeles.”The New York Times. 16 October, 2020.

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