Mexican reform reins in DEA partnership. Why now?

Henry Romero/Reuters
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador listens to the national anthem before he addresses the nation on his second anniversary in office, at the National Palace in Mexico City, Dec. 1, 2020. Reforms to a security law that the president proposed have been passed by Mexico's legislature.
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Mexico was blindsided in October, when U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s former top defense official in Los Angeles. The charges? Assisting a drug cartel. 

The arrest strained relations across the border, despite U.S. prosecutors’ move to drop the charges last month and return the general to Mexico, pointing to foreign policy considerations. This week, the repercussions escalated, with Mexico’s legislature approving reforms that observers say could disrupt security cooperation. Foreign agents on Mexican soil, such as Drug Enforcement Administration agents, would have their activities restricted, and be stripped of diplomatic immunity. 

Why We Wrote This

Mexico was ruffled by a former official’s arrest on U.S. soil, sparking reforms to shore up its sovereignty. Will they come at the cost of cross-border cooperation?

The United States and Mexico have a long history of diplomatic tussles over sovereignty. But the timing of this security reform is particularly high-stakes. And the tensions have brought a resurgence of accusations against the U.S. of “meddling.”

“Mexico is renewing its message of nonintervention,” says Analicia Ruiz of the University of Anáhuac Mexico. After four years of the Trump administration, and all the unknowns around the incoming Biden administration, Mexico is using this as an opportunity to “set out its terms” upfront, she says.

Over the past four years, Mexico’s relationship with the United States has faced any number of tests – from Donald Trump’s infamous statements about Mexican citizens on the 2016 campaign trail, to his hanging tariffs over Mexico’s head if it didn’t cooperate on immigration.

But none made diplomatic waves like the arrest of a former Mexican official in Los Angeles.

In October, U.S. agents arrested Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, the previous Mexican administration’s top defense official, on charges of assisting a drug cartel during his years in office. Mexico was blindsided, straining relations across the border. And this week, the repercussions escalated.

Why We Wrote This

Mexico was ruffled by a former official’s arrest on U.S. soil, sparking reforms to shore up its sovereignty. Will they come at the cost of cross-border cooperation?

New reforms to a security law were approved by the legislature on Tuesday, restricting foreign agents, such as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, on Mexican soil, and stripping their diplomatic immunity. Although it doesn’t directly target the U.S., President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed the reform following General Cienfuegos’ arrest, and it is expected to disrupt security cooperation between the two countries.

The U.S. and Mexico have a long history of diplomatic tussles over sovereignty, most iconically after the U.S. took upward of 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory following the Mexican-American War. But the timing of this security reform – amid a presidential transition in the U.S., following two years of what many have perceived as Mexico kowtowing to U.S. demands on migration, and at a time when violence in Mexico and drug-related deaths in the U.S. are at all-time highs – is particularly high-stakes. And the tensions that emerged from General Cienfuegos’ arrest have brought a resurgence of accusations against the U.S. of “meddling” and ignoring Mexico’s sovereignty.

“Mexico is renewing its message of nonintervention,” says Analicia Ruiz, a professor of global studies at the University of Anáhuac Mexico.

That message, she says, is directed at President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Despite Mr. Trump’s unvarnished approach to politics, “at the base of it all, Trump didn’t really question the Mexican government,” says Dr. Ruiz. But with all the unknowns around a new U.S. administration, Mexico is using this as an opportunity to “set out its terms” upfront, she says.

President Lopéz Obrador, often referred to by his initials, AMLO, was one of the last leaders in the world to congratulate Mr. Biden on his electoral victory. In the brief letter sent this week, he noted the importance of nonintervention.

Affront to the army

It’s not just U.S. political transitions dictating Mexico’s move to limit DEA agents in its territory.

The amended law, now awaiting President López Obrador’s signature, would force foreign agents to share information with Mexican counterparts. Any meeting with local officials would need to be approved by a federal government security committee and be attended by a foreign ministry official. Government employees would have to submit reports if and when they’re contacted by a foreign agent, limiting the role of DEA informants, observers say.

“This is backlash from the Cienfuegos case,” says Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst. But the pressure to react, he says, is coming from the army.

“I don’t think in any other previous administration the army had the political clout to force a confrontation with the U.S. that it has now,” Mr. Hope says. AMLO has chosen to work with the army on a long list of priorities, from the construction of Mexico City’s new airport, to overseeing the new National Guard, and soon delivering COVID-19 vaccines.

Mr. Hope says the army has a long memory, and the arrest of one of its own, General Cienfuegos, was a personal affront. “The relationship between the DEA and the army has always been tense.”

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
From left, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos; and Adm. Vidal Francisco Soberon Sanz, the Mexican secretary of the navy, stand for the U.S. national anthem at the Pentagon, May 22, 2017. General Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles in October 2020, though the U.S. soon dropped the charges.

Many here were angered by the apparently unilateral investigation and arrest. “Security is the central theme of bilateral relations with the U.S., and what happened with Cienfuegos, that it wasn’t carried out as a team, broke civility and trust,” says Professor Ruiz. U.S. prosecutors dropped the charges in November and returned him to Mexico, pointing to foreign policy considerations. So far, he faces no charges here, and many critics doubt he ever will.

Cooperation, and corruption

Observers say both countries will suffer from the reform. “It will translate into more violence in Mexico and translate into more drugs coming into the U.S. The only winners in this whole scenario are the drug traffickers,” says Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations. He says the law will stifle cooperation and information sharing. “Who is going to take your call if they have to write a report every time they talk to you?” he asks.

Mr. Hope predicts things will simply become more secretive: DEA agents in Mexico “will move undercover, basically,” he says. Their work will continue, but information sharing and joint efforts will dramatically diminish. “There used to be a saying in Mexico when orders came from the Spanish crown: ‘Obey but do not follow,’” he says. “That’s going to be the approach.”

And although some say they don’t blame Mexico for trying to keep better tabs on foreign agents operating here – would the U.S. tolerate foreign agents acting the way the DEA does in Mexico? – there are concerns over what this means for Mexico’s battle against corruption.

“There’s endemic corruption in Mexico and within its security forces. This will compromise agents, informants, operations, and investigations,” says Mr. Vigil.

AMLO came into office two years ago pledging to strip the country of corrupt actors. “We’ll clean the government as if we’re sweeping a staircase,” he famously pledged, committing to rid the government of corruption from the top down. In 2019, Transparency International ranked Mexico 130th out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

“AMLO is angry at the US for arresting a corrupt Mexican general and exposing the corruption within the Mexican military,” wrote analyst James Bosworth in a tweet this week. “AMLO doesn’t seem angry at the corruption within the military. That’s a huge problem.”

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