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.

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

“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.

Associated Press. “Vistazo al cartel H-2 que general mexicano habría apoyado.” Los Angeles Times. 16 October, 2020.

McDonnell, Patrick J. “Mexico Stunned by L.A. Arrest of Former Defense Chief Allegedly on Drug Cartel’s Payroll.” Los Angeles Times. 16 October, 2020.

Morán Breña, Carmen. “López Obrador enmarca la detención de Cienfuegos en la ‘peste’ de la corrupción de los ‘narcogobiernos.’” El País. 16 October, 2020.

“Read the Indictment against Mexcio’s Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.” The Washington Post. 16 October, 2020.

“Detienen al ex Secretario Salvador Cienfuegos en EU.” Reforma. 15 October, 2020.

“6 de cada 10 mexicanos confía en el Ejército y prefiere que ciude las calles: Parametría.” Animal Político. 23 February, 2017.

Malkin, Elisabeth. “Mexico Strengthens Military’s Role in Drug War, Outraging Critics.” The New York Times. 15 December, 2017.

Daly et al. Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico. 30 July, 2012.

U.S. Congress reacts to human rights concerns in Mexico

logo of Merida Initiative

Source: The Yucatán Times.

08/16/16 (written by kheinle) — Human rights concerns in Mexico have prompted the U.S. Congress to urge the State Department to take action. A letter sent August 9 sponsored by Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs called on Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department to withhold 15% of funds allocated for distribution to Mexico under the Merida Initiative for the coming year. From 2008 through 2015, Congress required that at least a portion (15%) of U.S. support through the Merida Initiative be contingent on specific human rights conditions. Such conditions are currently up for review.

With the support of 68 fellow members of Congress, the letter highlighted the grave human rights situation in Mexico as cause for withholding the next round of Merida funding. The letter specifically pointed to the 27,000 unresolved cases of disappeared persons in Mexico, a number that has amassed in just under ten years. It also focused on the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students who went missing while detained by Mexican security forces in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in September 2014. That case remains unresolved despite several reputable investigations by international organizations and experts, including the most recent study concluded in April 2016 by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes, GIEI) that found demonstrable “control and monitoring, if not active involvement, from all levels of [Mexican] security—ministerial, municipal, state, federal and military—in the incident,” among other grave concerns. The Congressional letter additionally pointed to the massacre in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex) in June 2014 during which Mexican soldiers killed 22 civilians in a warehouse, 15 of whom were killed extrajudicially. Lastly, the legislators cited “Mexico’s persistent use of torture in criminal investigations,” as well as “the slow pace of reform in the military, law enforcement, and justice sectors” as reasons for U.S. action. Indeed, the State Department even acknowledged such violations in the Mexico section of its most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015. “The most significant human rights-related problems included law enforcement and military involvement in serious abuses, such as unlawful killings, torture, and disappearances,” the report read. “Impunity and corruption in the law enforcement and justice system remained serious problems.”

WOLA logo

Source: WOLA.

Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Senior Associate Maureen Meyer, an expert in U.S.-Mexico relations, commented on the Congressional letter to Secretary Kerry, noting that human rights must remain a priority. “Maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with the United States’ neighbor and partner should not be at the expense of an honest dialogue about the human rights crisis in Mexico and the lack of accountability for the authorities responsible for these crimes,” she writes. Meyer’s comments draws on the fact that the Merida Initiative is exemplary of the strong ties between the United States and Mexico, but that it should not supersede the protection of fundamental human rights in Mexico.

It is important to contextualize the Merida Initiative. From FY2008 to FY2015, U.S. Congress allocated $2.5 billion in Merida funding to Mexico to support four pillars: (1) Disrupting organized crime groups, (2) institutionalizing the rule of law, (3) creating a 21st-century border, and (4) building strong and resilient communities. Thus, Merida funding supports a number of other key rule-of-law pillars in addition to the protection of human rights. As such, funding will continue through 2016, as the work to strengthen and maintain a strong rule of law in Mexico is far from complete. This notion was argued in Justice in Mexico’s July 2016 publication, “Policy Brief: The State of Judicial Sector Reform in Mexico,” in which the authors commend Mexico’s clear strides made in recent years to overhaul its criminal justice system, moving from an outdated, inquisitorial model to a new, transparent, and efficient adversarial system. However, the authors note that while “Mexico is one step closer to reaching a more just society … its path will no doubt remain long, steep, and sometimes rocky.” The 69 signatories to the recent Congressional letter to Secretary Kerry echoed that idea, acknowledging Mexico for its advances towards a more just society on the one hand while advocating for more work to be done on the other. “We commend the Government of Mexico for taking important legislative steps to advance human rights protections and to reform its criminal justice system,” the letter reads. “However, having good laws on the books does not ensure justice; Mexican authorities must enforce the law and respect human rights.”

To read the letter in full, click here.

 

Sources:

“CNDH issues recommendations for Tlatlaya massacre as case moves to federal civil court.” Justice in Mexico. November 30, 2014.

Ribando Seelke, Clare and Kristin Finklea. “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond.” Congressional Research Service. February 22, 2016.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practice for 2015: Mexico.” U.S. Department of State. April 2016.

Heinle, Kimberly et al. “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015.” Justice in Mexico. April 2016.

“Ayotzinapa Disappeared 43 Students Case Remains Unsolved.” Justice in Mexico. May 2, 2016.

Cortés, Nancy et al. “Policy Brief: The State of Judicial Sector Reform in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. July 25, 2016.

Government Communication. United States Congress of the United States. August 9, 2016.

Press Release. “Congressman Lowenthal Calls on State Dept. To Prioritize Human Rights and Justice Reform in Bilateral Talks With Mexico.” Office of U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal. August 10, 2016.

Press Release. “U.S. Congress Expresses Concern for Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis and Sends Letter to Secretary Kerry.” Washington Office on Latin America. August 11, 2016.