What does the arrest of General Cienfuegos mean for the future of US-Mexico security cooperation?

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently unmasked a high-level Mexican government official working on behalf of its notorious drug cartels: four-star General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who also served as the country’s Minister of Defense from 2013-2018. Cienfuegos stands accused of cooperating with drug traffickers on a level more often associated with the rampant corruption of Venezuela’s security forces. The arrest highlights the deeply troubled nature of Mexico’s security environment, including the fundamental challenge that corruption presents for US-Mexico cooperation and Mexican security.

US prosecutors say intercepted
messages between Cienfuegos and criminal leaders reveal that the then Minister
of Defense actively aided the shadowy H-2 cartel by warning traffickers of
planned security operations by the US and Mexico, targeting rival criminal
organizations, and facilitating the movement of illegal drugs, all in exchange
for bribes.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico’s General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda speaks during an official reception in Mexico City April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

For many, Cienfuegos’ arrest brings into question the central role of Mexico’s military in combating the cartels. The Mexican armed forces were thrust into the spotlight of counter-narcotics work due to concerns about the ineffectiveness and corruption of civilian law enforcement. This role was further enshrined by the landmark Mérida Initiative, a framework that has guided US-Mexico security cooperation for over a decade. The allegations against Cienfuegos undermine the military’s image as an institution of uncompromising integrity, complicating its role in Mexico’s domestic security landscape.

President Andrés Manuel
López Obrador’s dependence on the military, coupled with the institutional
fragility of Mexico’s police forces, makes it unlikely that he would curtail its
prominent role or bring greater scrutiny to military corruption. Unaddressed
concerns about corruption in Mexico’s armed forces, however, could undermine
the depth of US-Mexico security cooperation moving forward. 

The Cienfuegos case also resurfaces a broader criticism of Mexico’s fight against drug cartels. For years, Mexico has been engaged in a war against the cartels with few significant indicators of progress. Violence is at record high levels, criminal organizations are multiplying in number, diversifying their illicit activity, governing territory, and undermining state institutions, all while the flow of illegal drugs to the US continues largely unabated. Often, this grim reality is mustered as evidence of the need to fundamentally transform Mexico’s approach to the cartels and US-Mexico security cooperation more generally by deemphasizing the role of the security forces and their aggressive enforcement efforts. Even Mexico’s current president made this a central theme of his 2018 campaign.

While new strategic thinking
is no doubt necessary, the reality is that the strategies and institutions
employed to combat organized crime in Mexico have long been undermined by deep
corruption of the kind seen in the Cienfuegos case. And this corruption will
undermine any revised strategy against the cartels, too.

In 1997, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, then counter-narcotics chief, was revealed to be working for Juarez Cartel chief Amado Carillo Fuentes, one of Mexico’s most prolific drug traffickers. More recently, the arrest of Genaro García Luna, the country’s former minister of public security, placed one of the chief architects of Mexico’s security policy under suspicion of working with the Sinaloa cartel. More recently, Mexico City’s current chief of public security, Omar García Harfuch, is rumored to be linked to the Ayotzinapa massacre, one of the most worrying examples in modern memory of public officials colluding with criminal groups. Additional examples of corruption in Mexico’s security sector abound. 

For years, the ability of influential figures such as Cienfuegos to evade the dragnet, while cartels penetrate the highest echelons of power, has hamstrung the joint fight against transnational organized crime. Indeed, that neither President López Obrador nor Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard knew of the arrest until after it went public is indicative of the current levels of mistrust.

Previous measures have failed to sufficiently protect the integrity of Mexico’s security forces. For example, Mexico instituted “confidence tests” in 2004 — psychological, socioeconomic, and polygraph evaluations — for high-level figures in both the armed forces and civil service. However, General Cienfuegos apparently passed all of his. While President López Obrador has made anti-corruption a central issue of his agenda, he has failed to focus on corruption within Mexico’s security forces, taking aim instead at his political opponents.

One thing is clear: If the US and Mexico are to succeed in pushing back the menacing cartels, both countries will have to get serious about rooting out corruption at all levels of Mexico’s security forces. Until then, drug traffickers will continue to flourish with the help of their allies in uniform.

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