Vanda Felbab-Brown outlines what she calls the steady deterioration of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral security relationship and the mismanagement of and apathy toward public safety in Mexico by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador; and what the Biden administration can do. This piece is part of a series titled "Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies: What the Biden administration needs to know," from Brookings's Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors. This piece was originally published by La Reforma's Mexico Today.
The blows that in the last days of the Trump presidency Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivered to the U.S.-Mexico bilateral security relationship further complicate and eviscerate that troubled but vital relationship. Although only the latest provocation from the Mexican president, these moves are not just signals, diplomatic posturing, or venting driven by Mexico’s domestic politics. They do have many real and lasting practical negative implications for the public safety of both countries. They are part and parcel of the steady deterioration of the bilateral security relationship and the mismanagement of and apathy toward public safety in Mexico under by the López Obrador administration. The Mexican government hopes that the Biden administration, like its predecessor, will focus on migration and post-coronavirus (Covid-19) economic recovery, and will ignore how the Mexican government gutted the important security cooperation. But the Biden administration should not do that. At stakes are lives of U.S. and Mexican citizens, and basic public safety and rule of law in Mexico.
On January 14, Mexico’s prosecutors dismissed the case against Mexico’s former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos whom U.S. authorities arrested in October and accused of drug trafficking, money laundering, and close cooperation with the brutal H-2 Cartel. The exoneration of Cienfuegos is bad for Mexico and for the United States: it reveals the continued spinelessness of Mexican prosecutors and their persisting vulnerability to political manipulation and pressure from powerful actors – whether the Mexican military or the drug traffickers.
On the heels of other U.S. indictments of top-level Mexican officials, Cienfuegos’ arrest highlighted just how much Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) continue to infiltrate the highest levels of the Mexican government. And it raised questions about the extent of the Mexican army’s involvement with the DTOs. Under massive pressure from the Mexican government, including the threat to prohibit access of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents to Mexico, the United States handed Cienfuegos over to Mexico, along with the U.S. prosecution file, and dropped the charges against him. This unprecedented U.S. act sought to preserve the rest of the bilateral security relationship.
Mexico promised to conducts its own investigation into Cienfuegos. But few Mexico analysts believed that Mexico’s investigation of Cienfuegos and any other military and political accomplices with whom he might have colluded would be serious and rigorous.
But to make things worse, President López Obrador did not frame the Mexico’s dismissal of the Cienfuegos case as matter of insufficient evidence, instead claiming U.S. prosecutors “fabricated” the charges. To add injury to that insult, the Mexican president then unilaterally released the 751 pages of U.S. evidence against Cienfuegos which the Department of Justice had provided to Mexico. One can only hope that the United States in handing over the evidence file, purged it of all sensitive information about sources and methods. The U.S. Department of Justice called the Mexican government in breach of the U.S.-Mexican treaty governing such information sharing and announced that it reserves the right to reopen its prosecution of Cienfuegos. The Mexican government thereupon released the record of its own hasty “investigation” of Cienfuegos, almost entirely redacted – making a farce of the credibility of its findings and driving home its willingness to damage U.S. law enforcement work in Mexico by not carefully protecting U.S. intelligence.
But the damage to the U.S.-Mexican relationship goes much deeper. Before exonerating Cienfuegos and compromising the U.S. evidence, the Mexican government had double-crossed the United States. Without consulting the United States about how to meaningfully improve security cooperation to the mutual satisfaction Mexico passed a new foreign agent law in December. That law limited the ability of U.S. law enforcement agents to operate in Mexico and constrained Mexican officials from cooperating with the United States to such an extent as to practically neuter the security cooperation. With its lasting negative restrictions and other problematic effects, the law brought the U.S.-Mexico security relationship to its lowest point since the late 1980s.
The United States can take only one message from all of this: the López Obrador administration at its highest levels is not a trustworthy U.S. security partner. Its disastrous handling of its own anti-crime policy, its apathy to the continual growth of the multifaceted power, brazenness, and impunity of Mexican criminal groups and their increasing violence, and its willingness to shield corrupt high officials and powerful institutions like the army from justice, make U.S.-Mexican security cooperation extraordinarily difficult.
And to a considerable some extent, the Mexican government appears not to care. The López Obrador administration seems quite satisfied to stop cooperating with the United States on public safety and anti-crime issues in Mexico, being uninterested in discussions of how to adapt the Mérida Initiative, disengaging from high-level U.S.-Mexico security structures, refusing to accept U.S. law enforcement training of its new National Guard, and being unwilling to take determined against fentanyl production in Mexico and its trafficking to the United States where it pushes overdose deaths to tens of thousands of Americans annually.
The López Obrador administration seems to hope that it can seek close economic cooperation on post-Covid-19 recovery and joint collaboration with the United States on addressing root causes of poverty and violence in the Central America while double-crossing the United States in the Cienfuegos case and giving the United States a cold shoulder security and other issues, such as zoonotic prevention through environmental conservation and green energy.
The United States must rapidly disabuse the López Obrador administration of this assumption of Washington’s tolerance of Mexico’s malfeasance. It is time for the United States to get tough with its southern neighbor on security, public safety, and rule of law issues. What are the policy implications?
The United States should consider suspending Mérida funding, allowing only programs which the Mexican government is not undermining. In any discussion of how to revise and adapt Merida, the United Should never accept simply funding drug treatment programs in Mexico, as the Mexican government has proposed. Yes, such programs, when rigorously and effectively designed, are very important. But they cannot be the entirety of anti-crime and rule of law efforts. In fact, the United States may well consider conditioning any expansion of U.S. funding for such programs on meaningful improvements in the U.S.-Mexico security cooperation.
Exploring how to move from high-value targeting in Mexico to simultaneous middle-level targeting of the operational levels of Mexican criminal groups and their corrupt government patrons is an important, if difficult, part of the agenda. High-value targeting creates serious problems since the resulting fragmentation of criminal groups exacerbates the disastrous violence levels in Mexico. But the answer is not allowing people like Cienfuegos to get away with the most serious crimes. A better anti-crime strategy would focus on bringing down much of the middle-operational layers of a criminal groups and government-corruption network in one sweep. That remains difficult in Mexico because of the continuing corruption there and the lack of capacity and trustworthiness of Mexican law enforcement agencies to undertake such lengthy investigations, avoid leaks, and meaningfully execute sweep arrests. Even so, that should be the direction of efforts to strengthen Mexican law enforcement capacities and U.S.-Mexico collaboration.
The United States needs to carefully monitor the practical damage the new foreign agent law has inflicted on U.S.-Mexican law enforcement operations and steadily seek to counter it. On the same day Mexican prosecutors exonerated Cienfuegos, the Mexican government published guidelines of how to operationalize the foreign agent law. To an extent, the new guidelines show some responsiveness to U.S. concerns about the disastrous effects of the law for Mexico’s public safety and the bilateral relationship. The guidelines were formulated subsequent to the passage of the law based on U.S. consultations with Mexico. Positively, the scope of information that needs to be shared with high levels of the Mexican government about any meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials has been reduced. But this improvement does not fully redress the chilling effect of the law on sharing sensitive information, with the possibility of leaks and threats to honest Mexican law enforcement officials from their corrupt counterparts persisting.
To overcome some of the damage of the law, the United States should insist that much of its collaboration takes places through joint special vetted units. And from now on, the United States should not tolerate the higher-level Mexican officials in the units being exempted from the vetting, something the Mexican government had previously insisted on with disastrous effects for collaboration, meaningful law enforcement, and the safety of Mexican civilians. In fact, the United States should insist that the representatives of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs whom the foreign agents law mandates to sit in on all the U.S.-Mexican meetings at any level anywhere in Mexico be also subjected to full vetting.
Nonetheless, until really meaningful improvements in Mexico take place, the United States should no longer extradite high-level Mexican suspects indicted and arrested by the United States for drug trafficking, money-laundering, and serious corruption. And the U.S. Department of Justice should not be deterred from persisting with such investigations and launching new indictments and apprehensions. Clearly, Mexico is not willing and able to promote justice by itself and has sabotaged meaningful anti-crime collaboration with the United States.
The Biden administration should be wary of designing its ambitious efforts to address root causes of migration in Central America jointly with Mexico. In fact, Mexico’s handling of the Cienfuegos case and of anti-crime policies in Mexico, and his unwillingness to condemn human rights abuses, authoritarian practices (including the violence on the U.S. Capitol Hill) and brutal governments like that of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro all show that the López Obrador administration is not a good partner for a joint strategy in Central America. The effectiveness of any development projects and institution-building there depends on addressing the egregious levels of criminal corruption, poor rule of law, and the pervasive impunity and abusiveness of government forces and officials. Shielding the likes of Cienfuegos in Central America and ignoring deep-seated institutional deficiencies under the mantra of non-interference in national sovereignty and closing one’s eyes to the brazenness and impunity of criminal groups should at least for now disqualify the López Obrador administration from being a U.S. partner in the Central America rebuilding strategy.
Until U.S.-Mexico security collaboration improves, and lasting cooperation structures are put in place, the United States should also not allow the exports of Mexican cannabis to the United States when Mexico legalizes recreational cannabis production (likely in 2021). In the context of the setbacks the López Obrador administration inflicted on U.S.-Mexico security cooperation, the United States cannot be assured about the extent of the Mexican criminal groups’ infiltration into and extortion of the to-be-legal cannabis industry.
Finally, the United States should keep at the ready two powerful tools: designating Mexican drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations and decertifying Mexico for failing to collaborate with U.S. counternarcotics efforts. Both are fraught, blunt, and outright problematic tools that are normally best avoided. But if the López Obrador administration persists in handling the security relationship with the United States as a double-cross sabotage, then it may leave the United States with no other option.
To demonstrate some willingness to dig the U.S.-Mexico relationship out of the deep freeze to which it has been thrust, and to begin repairing some of the damage, the López Obrador administration can start taking the following actions: Mexico should resume its participation in high-level U.S.-Mexico security dialogues and structures. Mexico should strengthen the power and work of U.S.-Mexico joint vetted units and accept full-spectrum vetting, including of the Foreign Ministry officials present in law enforcement meetings. And, in close collaboration with the United States, Mexico should develop a serious joint strategy for reducing the flows of fentanyl through Mexican ports and for cracking down on fentanyl labs and pill mills, with U.S. agents present in intelligence gathering and enforcement operations at least in a supervisory role.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.