The United States has had counternarcotics agents in Mexico for almost a century. Its role has changed in step with the needs of the North American giant, which since the middle of the last century has privileged the war on drugs as the core of its security policy. US efforts have always caused a stir in Mexico. But seldom as much as in the case of General Salvador Cienfuegos. His arrest in Los Angeles in October and the subsequent diplomatic clash between the two countries raised the tension to levels not seen since Enrique’s murder. Kiki Camarena in Guadalajara in 1985. The question now is what consequences it will have in the long term.
Cienfuegos, Secretary of Defense during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), was exonerated last week in Mexico. He was accused of drug trafficking in the United States, but was repatriated in November, under the promise that he would continue his judicial process in his country. The return of the general, the highest-ranking military command to face a trial on the other side of the border, became a matter of state, with diplomatic efforts instructed directly by the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The case put into focus the privileged relationship that the president has built with the Army. The arrest by US authorities, without notifying their Mexican colleagues, was a new sign of wear and tear in bilateral security cooperation. To respond to his critics in Mexico, López Obrador went further: he accused the DEA of “fabricating crimes” and made public the confidential report that the anti-drug agency compiled on the military man. Washington said he was “disappointed” in the decision of the Mexican president and López Obrador again lashed out at the agency: “I could also say that I am disappointed in the work of the DEA.”
“The relationship between Mexico and the DEA has been marked by crises and surprises,” says academic Celia Toro, one of the first to study the agency’s steps in the country. Toro affirms that the apprehension of Cienfuegos was a hasty action by the United States, perhaps designed to make the DEA “notorious” and that it did not consider the consequences it could have in Mexico. The specialist also questions López Obrador’s decision to escalate the conflict. “In the confrontation there is no possible settlement, everything becomes a lawsuit,” says the professor at El Colegio de México.
US counter-narcotics operations in Latin America are a long way from the fight between good guys and bad guys that has come to the screen in series like Narcos. In his work Taking the War on Drugs Down South: The Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico (1973–1980), the academic Carlos Pérez Ricart remembers the first years of the war on drugs in Mexico. Since the 1930s, the obsession of the United States was to stop the opium trade to the country, a time when poppy crops in Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango and other territories south of the Rio Grande were growing in importance.
Ricart says that until the 1950s, the activity of anti-drug agents used to be limited to the border cities, but then the focus changed due to the increasing flow of heroin and cocaine to the north. The FBN, the anti-drug agency at the time, opened its first office in Mexico in 1963. The number of agents grew over the years. Then the FBN disappeared and in 1973 the Government created the DEA. In 1978 they already had 58 agents in Mexico.
The first clashes between the agency and the Government of Mexico came in the 1970s, as a result of the eradication campaigns of illicit crops in Mexico and the participation of the DEA in anti-drug operations. The United States convinced its neighbor of the benefits of herbicides and provided equipment to improve the results. The DEA played a leading role in this binational effort. The coordinator of the government’s eradication efforts at the time, Alejandro Gertz, now attorney general, said that herbicides would end drug cultivation in half a year. Also that the only ones who were against herbicides were the traffickers.
Time confirmed that drug cultivation persisted and that the complainants were not only drug traffickers, but also peasants. In the mid-1970s, the first complaints of extrajudicial executions in the context of the war on drugs, perpetrated by Mexican agents with the complicity of their peers in the DEA, began to transcend. In 1978, Mexico suspended DEA participation in eradication campaigns.
Beyond the protests of the peasants and other explanations that were given then, Ricart points out that one of the main reasons was the complaints of the military. His presence, says the academic, “offended the extreme sensitivity of the Mexican Army.” For their part, DEA agents suspected that the main reason for the complaint was the Army’s desire to get rid of any supervision and take advantage of its corruption.
The idea that a police force can operate beyond its borders was initially problematic. Dr. Mónica Serrano, an expert in transnational crime and international relations, points out the “extraterritoriality” of the DEA in particular and of the United States in general as the germ of the problem. An invasive strategy that turned all of Latin America into an extension of the law enforcement American. Since the 1980s, the DEA had much more power and influence outside the United States than within its territory, adds Celia Toro.
For Serrano, a researcher at El Colegio de México, the affair Cienfuegos is an inheritance of that way of functioning. “Latin America, as a natural space for North American hegemony, has been the scene of excesses: the capture of Noriega in Panama after having been an ally of the CIA. Or the threat against [el presidente] Samper in Colombia for the accusations that the drug trafficker had donated money to his campaign. These are actions that undermine the autonomy of the States ”, argues the academic. “Something like this had not happened in Mexico, although there is a precedent: the episode surrounding the murder of Kiki Camarena and what that triggers, in terms of extraterritorial outbursts from the United States, ”says Serrano,“ although there had not been an incident the size of Cienfuegos ”.
DEA’s scope of action
At the heart of the conflict is the fear of host countries that the DEA will cross too many lines and the frustration of US agents at a recurring claim: mistrust, corruption, and bureaucratic hurdles by their Latin American counterparts. The agency has five regional offices in Mexico with about 50 base employees, but it is common for dozens of “informal” agents to cross the border to collect intelligence for weeks or months, almost always without notifying the government. In this gray area, the agency resorts to elements of Mexican origin, who are more easily camouflaged, and has made important deployments to intercept drug trafficking telecommunications – such as those that led to the capture of Cienfuegos -, an even less traceable job for the Mexican authorities, says academic Raúl Benítez Manaut. “Mexico is probably the priority country for the DEA,” says the researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Although the DEA has a more bureaucratic than political profile, its scope for action depends on two axes: the importance that the current US president gives to the fight against drugs and the flexibility of his Mexican counterpart. The arrival of the conservative governments of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) marked the beginning of an unprecedented openness to the DEA and other agencies, which fell into several excesses in the first years of the war against drug trafficking, points out Benítez Manaut. Peña Nieto and López Obrador decided to stand out and the Mérida initiative, launched in 2008 as the master guide for the bilateral agenda on Security, was relegated.
“The Cienfuegos case confirms that justice is more politicized than ever,” warns Benítez Manaut. With the relationship at a standstill, the gap between the two has widened and the scope for illegal operations and agreements increased. López Obrador has launched a series of political messages, such as a reform to the National Security Law that was approved last December to regulate the actions of foreign agents. For Toro, there were no changes to the rules of the game. “We need a political agreement that gives a good channel to cooperation”, questions the academic, “if cooperation is not of mutual benefit, can it be called cooperation?”
After decades of shocks and crises, the experts consulted agree that Mexico and the DEA need each other. “If the DEA leaves Mexico, those who win are the drug trafficking bosses,” says Benítez. The outcome of the Cienfuegos case, which has not been closed in the United States, may be decisive in setting the tone of the bilateral relationship after Joe Biden took office this Wednesday. The first months of Biden, in power after one of the most complex transitions in history, will also be decisive in reestablishing contacts and leaving behind the grievances of recent weeks, which cut through the justice systems, cabinets and red lines from both countries.