Do you think France, Canada or Great Britain would be OK if the Americans detained their defense secretary without telling them?” a Mexican official asked rhetorically in the January 2, 2021, issue of The Economist. Anyone versed in the Mexican criminal underworld might respond by noting that cabinet officials in Europe and Canada generally don’t conspire with transnational criminal organizations to traffic illegal drugs into the United States.
Safe to say that the saga of General Salvador Cienfuegos has not been a high-water mark in the counter-narcotics efforts of the U.S. government. A renowned figure in Mexican military circles and minister of defense from 2012 to 2018, Cienfuegos boarded a flight last October, accompanied by his family, from Mexico City to Los Angeles. When the plane landed, he was met by U.S. federal agents carrying an arrest warrant charging him with drug-trafficking conspiracy. The next day, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, acknowledged that the U.S. had notified him of the Cienfuegos investigation prior to the arrest and lamented the systemic corruption of prior Mexican presidential administrations.
Then, as if suddenly realizing that his own rapidly failing security strategy relied on the same military that so revered Cienfuegos, AMLO did an about-face, remonstrating in his daily press briefings on the audacity of American drug agents in America investigating violations of American drug laws without first notifying the Mexican government. A month later, in a move that shocked the Cienfuegos prosecution team in New York, the U.S. government released the general, along with the wiretap evidence against him, to Mexico under the pretense that the Mexican government would conduct its own investigation. On January 14, after the shortest criminal investigation in Mexican history, the same government declared Cienfuegos innocent. The Mexican president characterized the U.S. evidence as “fabricated.”
In the midst of the Cienfuegos saga, the Mexican legislature, at AMLO’s urging, passed a law in December stripping DEA agents of diplomatic immunity and requiring that all evidence obtained by American agents in Mexico be turned over to the Mexican government. If followed, the new law would all but shut down DEA operations in Mexico. As each passing blow goes unanswered by the U.S., the Mexican political establishment grows bolder and the threat posed by Mexican organized crime grows more potent.
The direct involvement of Mexico’s military in its counter-drug strategy dates to 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón declared a “war on drugs” and enlisted the Mexican army and navy to carry out traditional police functions. The carnage that followed, a homicide rate that increased from eight murders per 100,000 citizens in 2007 to 23 per 100,000 in 2011, was as much a result of warring cartels as Calderón’s militarization of law enforcement. But the precedent was set, and the military became both the hammer of the Mexican government and the preferred partner of DEA agents operating in Mexico.
Front and center in the new drug war was Cienfuegos, who led the army’s counter-narcotics efforts in Guerrero, a Mexican state controlled by the Sinaloa federation, a cartel based in the state of Sinaloa. In 2012, Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, elevated him to defense minister. By then, the Sinaloa-based federation had fractured: One piece was the cartel led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo,” and Ismael Zambada García, “El Mayo.” Another piece was led by Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, “Chapo Isidro,” today the most powerful of Mexico’s drug lords. A DEA investigation dating to 2013 found that Cienfuegos, referred to in the Mexican underworld as “Padrino,” was working to protect drug shipments controlled by Isidro. The DEA wanted to pursue an indictment, but the Obama administration did not allow it.
A separate DEA investigation in 2016 found Padrino again working on behalf of a Sinaloan drug trafficker, this time Juan Francisco Patrón, “H-2.” DEA wiretaps revealed that Cienfuegos had accepted bribes to target H-2 rivals and protect the gang’s drug shipments. A review of enforcement actions between 2015 and 2017 shows that Cienfuegos earned his money. The military conducted only a single marijuana seizure from the gang in those years, while seizing dozens of drug shipments from rival organizations. The warrant leading to the October arrest emanated from the H-2 investigation.
Yet U.S. government evidence tying Cienfuegos to transnational organized crime stretches well beyond the H-2 wiretaps, just as the political establishment that has enabled and regulated Mexico’s drug trade extends far beyond Cienfuegos. U.S. prosecutors and agents in New York and San Diego fired the first salvos, charging several figures. Cienfuegos was to be next. More will come. AMLO likely believed he was preserving a corrupt system by convincing his American counterpart to release Cienfuegos. He was merely putting a finger on a small crack in a dam destined to burst.
Diplomatically, the U.S. has suffered a series of embarrassing defeats to its Mexican counterparts. In October 2019, after DEA agents led the Mexican military in Culiacán to one of Chapo Guzmán’s sons, who was wanted on a U.S. arrest warrant, AMLO violated Mexico’s extradition treaty with the U.S. by ordering his release. The next month, Mexican drug traffickers brutally murdered a family of nine Americans, women and children included. After the murders, President Trump threatened to designate Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations as terrorists, which would have handed U.S. prosecutors a new set of tools. But Trump stood down after Mexican protestations, and the designation did not happen.
In the wake of the latest developments, President Biden should ramp up pressure. Cienfuegos should be reindicted, an arrest warrant reissued, and Mexico pressured to effect his arrest and extradition to the United States. Congressional financial support of Mexican counter-gang efforts, the Mérida Initiative, should cease until the government of Mexico demonstrates a renewed commitment to bilateral cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. The U.S. should extend the terrorist designation to Mexican criminal organizations that are poisoning the streets of America with fentanyl and methamphetamine. In the U.S.-Mexico relationship, American leadership is long overdue.
How would France, Canada, or Great Britain respond if the United States arrested one of their prominent officials for drug trafficking? Their governments would likely determine to select better leaders, and their citizens would likely demand it. The day will come when the people of Mexico do the same.