After Cienfuegos, Criminal Cross-Border Collaboration Continues; Governmental Collaboration Suffers


The last few weeks have been trying for the U.S.-Mexican relationship. They have called into question the principle of shared responsibility that underpins the joint effort to “counter drug-fueled violence threatening citizens on both sides of the border,” in the words of the 2008 Merida Initiative agreement, under which billions of dollars flowed to the Mexican military and judiciary. However, even if the Mexican government is now calling for nonintervention and respect for national sovereignty, regional challenges such as drugs, guns, and disease cross borders. And when the general formerly responsible for overseeing shared efforts to combat them is arrested on one side of the border on drug and money-laundering charges, then repatriated and exonerated, the repercussions are also shared.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda served as Mexico’s national defense secretary during the Peña Nieto administration, from 2012 to 2018. On Oct. 15, 2020, Cienfuegos was arrested at the Los Angeles airport on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, making him the highest ranked official arrested in the United States on accusations of working with criminal groups, but not the only general in the Mexican army accused of helping drug traffickers. His arrest caused a media storm in Mexico and the United States because, among other reasons, apparently nobody within the Mexican government had been notified of the investigation or the impending arrest. It also put the small state of Nayarit and the criminal organization “H-2”  (the group alleged to have bribed Cienfuegos, whom they referred to as “El Padrino,” or the godfather, into helping move narcotics) on the map, both of which seldom feature in discussions of violence in Mexico.

For those who had followed the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo,” in New York, the impending legal proceedings against Cienfuegos promised an equal parade of colorful witnesses who would provide details on the relationship between organized crime and high-level Mexican officials. More importantly, while prosecution would not necessarily redress victims of the futile “war on drugs,” it would at least bring to justice a perpetrator who had abused his position within government for personal gain at the expense of Mexican lives.



It also had the potential of bringing to the fore significant vetting failures in the United States, and of helping improve vetting mechanisms for both countries. Cienfuegos was a close U.S. collaborator and even received in 2018 the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education given by the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies based at the National Defense University. Recipients of the award are individuals or organizations that “advanced a cooperative international security environment, and/or promoted sustainable institutional capacity in the Americas.”

This was not to be. To the dismay of observers and victims of violence, charges against Cienfuegos were dismissed in the United States in November and he was exonerated in Mexico on Jan. 15. From the moment his repatriation was announced, observers believed Cienfuegos had little to fear. A serious investigation by Mexico’s attorney general’s office would likely unleash significant infighting within the government, and history suggests it would have been unlikely to lead to conviction and punishment. When Cienfuegos was repatriated to Mexico, the attorney general’s office had not issued a warrant for his arrest. Even before being exonerated, Cienfuegos was, in nearly every sense, a free man. To date, Cienfuegos’ guilt or innocence remains to be demonstrated in the court of law.

According to some sources, his repatriation was the result of a negotiation heavily influenced by the Mexican army. It is important to note that unlike the United States, where the Department of Defense oversees the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, in Mexico the army and the navy are separate secretariats with no authority like the Pentagon overseeing their activities. As a bargaining chip, the Mexican government apparently promised to prosecute Cienfuegos and continue to allow the operation of U.S. agents on Mexican soil in exchange for Cienfuegos’ return. Mexico failed on both accounts. On Dec. 15, the Mexican Congress approved changes to the 2005 National Security Law. The changes include the addition of paragraphs that regulate and control activities by intelligence agencies of foreign countries in Mexican territory. For some of us who follow and study the U.S.-Mexico relationship, these legal changes are, unfortunately, expected to severely hinder cooperation and hurt the relationship for years to come. This comes at a lethal time for the region, when COVID-19, homicides, and overdoses have killed Mexicans and Americans in record numbers.

Is Mexico’s exoneration of Cienfuegos the end of the saga? Hardly.

A New Aggravation in the U.S.-Mexican Relationship

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is an agency with long-term memory. Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a DEA special agent who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mexico in the ‘80s, has become an integral part of the DEA’s mythology, and to this day his murder is used as a rallying cry for the organization. Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the perpetrators of Camarena’s murder, remains on the DEA’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, and the organization offers $20 million for information leading to his arrest. As explained by the DEA on its 40th anniversary, the Camarena case was

 a turning point internally … and externally. … [The] DEA went to war with the government of Mexico about the kidnapping of Kiki Camarena. We didn’t have many persons behind us. … DEA overseas depends upon the integrity of the police with whom they work. That trust, that honor failed completely in Mexico with the loss of Kiki Camarena. … It took the loss of Camarena for the nation to realize that we had to get serious about corruption in Mexico. And so, it was a telling moment for the Drug Enforcement Administration. … [B]ut more importantly, I think, [it] established that a murder or kidnapping of a DEA agent or any federal official overseas is a crime against the laws of the United States no matter where in the world it takes place.

Given that the indictment against Cienfuegos was built on evidence provided by the DEA, the dismissal of his charges and his return to Mexico are bound to infuriate more than one special agent. This will only be exacerbated now that Mexico has exonerated Cienfuegos and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador accused the DEA of fabricating the charges against him. But whatever López Obrador’s feeling towards the DEA, the agency’s intelligence is key for Mexican law enforcement. Last year, for example, intelligence the DEA shared with Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit led to blocking approximately 2,000 bank accounts linked to the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación criminal organization. Operation Agave Azul, as it was named, remains to date the most aggressive action by the López Obrador administration against money laundering by criminal groups. Not long ago, the director of Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit, Santiago Nieto, publicly thanked the DEA on his Twitter account for the intelligence that led to it.

To be sure, no government agency on either side of the border should be more important than the relationship. But without prosecution against Cienfuegos — plus the law restricting U.S. agents, including those from the DEA, from operating in Mexico — there is a new aggravation within the U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship. Cienfuegos will become part of the call to arms used by the DEA to push for punitive and criminalizing drug policies (as opposed to a focus on public health) and a thorn in the relationship for years to come.

Biden Administration Puts Away the Carrots and Brings out the Big Stick

In the short term, it pushes the incoming Biden administration into a tougher stance. As my colleague Vanda Felbab-Brown has explained, this includes options like economic tariffs, arresting and prosecuting other Mexican officials, or cutting development aid to Mexico. The United States can do this not only because of the asymmetry that defines the bilateral relationship but also because there is hardly a consolidated bureaucratic corps on security matters in Mexico that can play hardball with the United States. This problem is not new, but the López Obrador administration has implemented several substantial changes that have weakened Mexico’s bargaining position at a time it wants to (regrettably) play the sovereignty card.

Some of the changes include the dissolution of the Federal Police and the creation of the National Guard, which has yet to meet its recruitment goals. The administration also brought back the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection, which was eliminated under the Peña Nieto administration. Furthermore, Martha Bárcena, a career diplomat and Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, announced her resignation in early December. Her replacement will be Esteban Moctezuma, current secretary of education, who has never served Mexico on a foreign policy assignment.

To say this is unfortunate would be an understatement. The bilateral relationship has been strained for a few years, starting with a slowdown during the Peña Nieto years, and worsened when the 2016 presidential candidate for the Republican Party referred to immigrants from the country’s southern neighbor as “rapists,” drug traffickers, and criminals. January 2021 presented an opportunity to steer the relationship back onto a productive course, allowing Mexico to bring to the table crucial issues like arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico. However, the hostility perceived by the United States as a result of Mexican actions in the Cienfuegos case is shutting a window of opportunity to deepen cooperation that ultimately benefits citizens in the region.

The Real Winners of ‘the Godfather’ Scandal

The ultimate beneficiary of this breakdown in communications are criminal actors in the United States and Mexico who continue their profitable cross-border collaborations.

Advocates of U.S.-Mexican cooperation recognize there are many aspects in which security cooperation could be improved, starting with an approach to drug use and violence that focuses on public health rather than punitive policies. While I do not believe poppy growers in rural areas of Mexico are directly responsible for the loss of American lives, activities like transnational drug trafficking will continue to displace and kill both Mexican and U.S. citizens. In the current state of affairs, it should surprise nobody if we continue to hear devastating stories of mothers searching for their loved ones and count record numbers of homicides and overdoses on both sides of the border. Yet again.

With willful negligence and active hostility, through the exoneration of Cienfuegos and modification of a law that undermines U.S.-Mexican cooperation, the López Obrador administration has pushed the United States into a defensive stand. After Mexico unilaterally unsealed the information the U.S. government shared for the Cienfuegos investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice accused the López Obrador administration of violating an international treaty by releasing confidential U.S. documents. Furthermore, the United States has reserved its right to prosecute Cienfuegos in the future.

As a baseball fan, López Obrador may do well to remember that in America’s favorite pastime, and unlike in most other sports, it is the defense that has the ball.



Cecilia Farfán-Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at U.C. San Diego and co-founder of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.

Image: Office of the Mexican President

Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko; compatible; bingbot/2.0; + Chrome/116.0.1938.76 Safari/537.36