After Cienfuegos release, the US-Mexico security relationship enters a deep freeze

Mexico’s attorney general has declined to prosecute General Salvador Cienfuegos, accused of cooperating with drug traffickers from the shadowy H-2 cartel. The widely predicted development brings Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) a step further down the road to dismantling US-Mexico security cooperation and creates an urgent diplomatic crisis at the outset of the Biden administration.

The back-story: Cienfuegos, who served as the country’s Minister of Defense from 2013-2018, was arrested while visiting the US in October 2020 — a move that allegedly blindsided the Mexican government, which had been left in the dark regarding the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) years-long investigation into the general. Following his arrest, AMLO’s government embarked on a noisy diplomatic campaign to undermine confidence in the charges and return Cienfuegos, purportedly threatening to expel the DEA from Mexico. In November 2020, the US yielded to Mexico’s demands, citing the need to preserve the broader US-Mexico security and diplomatic relationship. 

Mexico’s then defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, addresses an audience during the 50th anniversary of the Plan of Assistance to the Population in case of Disaster (Plan DN-III-E) in Mexico City, Mexico July 12, 2017. Picture taken on July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

However, an emboldened AMLO continues to launch nationalist jabs at the US that undermine the bilateral relationship, even after the return of Cienfuegos. As if to rub salt in the wound, his party introduced and passed legislation in Mexico’s Congress that would severely restrict the DEA’s operations in Mexico. The legislation, combined with AMLO’s impugning of the DEA — even accusing the agency of fabricating evidence against Cienfuegos — and Mexico’s unilateral release of privileged evidence shared by the US, in violation of various legal assistance treaties, are forceful punctuations on a highly concerning period in the bilateral relationship. (After consultations with US officials, Mexico watered down the implementation of the DEA law.) AMLO clearly seeks to test the US and the new Biden administration, as vital security cooperation teeters on the precipice.

With Cienfuegos free, a dangerous sense of impunity in the top echelons of the Mexican state has been reaffirmed, while drug cartels continue to grow more potent, gaining ground against a Mexican administration with little interest in developing a deeper domestic security agenda. The Biden administration must find a way to balance the diplomatic relationship with the need to combat corruption and organized crime in Mexico. Combatting impunity is not only critical to US-Mexico bilateral security ties, but also to curtailing the bloodshed and ending Mexico’s perpetual violence.

The US cannot shy away from working
to combat corruption in Mexico, including in the Mexican Army and police forces,
where it directly impacts the security and broader interests of both countries.
Quite simply, the threat is too significant — and growing — and the
consequences of neglecting this challenge have been brought into stark relief by
recent events. If the Biden administration declines to push AMLO’s government
to confront the realities of institutional corruption in Mexico, the country’s
cartels will continue to prosper with the assistance of their allies in
government — to the detriment of both Americans and Mexicans.

It is also essential for the US to push back on AMLO’s maligning of the DEA and US prosecutors for their handling of the Cienfuegos case. To that end, the US should use both private diplomatic and public channels to defend the decision to pursue the Mexican general. Officials at the US Treasury Department should explore and adopt sanctions against Cienfuegos, denying him access to the US and its financial system. And under no circumstances should the US consider extraditing other high-level Mexican officials currently held on corruption charges in the US, such as former Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna, whose extradition request Mexico filed last year.

Beyond this, the US must push Mexico to adopt greater independent oversight over its security institutions, including by empowering Mexico’s civil society to hold corrupt officials accountable. At the same time, the US will need to carefully manage the bilateral relationship and mitigate the rise of nationalist tensions by expanding cooperation, where possible, with vetted Mexican officials, while not giving in to demands to cede the independence of US officials. In the long-term, the US must get the Mérida Initiative, or a more tailored successor program, back on track, leveraging US assistance to encourage domestic reforms in Mexico.

The incoming Biden administration will have its hands full working to reverse this worrying slide in US-Mexico bilateral relations. If it takes quick and decisive action, however, it just might bring the US-Mexico security partnership out of its current deep freeze.

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