Scandals, leaks and power games: The DEA’s turbulent relationship with Mexico and President López Obrador

A new publication about the alleged links between drug traffickers and the president’s inner circle has, once again, strained the bilateral relationship. According to experts, this is a strategy by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to attack the Mexican president

Andrés Manuel López Obrador reportaje de la DEA
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City.Isaac Esquivel (EFE)
Elías Camhaji

“By what right do you investigate a legal, legitimately constituted government of an independent country? Is there a global government? Isn’t each country independent and sovereign?” These were just some of the points that the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO), made to the White House during his televised morning conference on Thursday, February 22. The president dedicated more than an hour to eviscerating a request for comment sent by The New York Times, which is investigating alleged contributions made by drug traffickers to his successful 2018 campaign. The main source of the report was an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) — which never became a formal accusation — and statements by at least three informatics, who claimed that they gave millions of dollars to López Obrador’s children and members of his inner-circle. “In the past, [Mexican] presidents were like employees of foreign governments — obedient, eager, submissive — and they became accustomed to not respecting our independence, our sovereignty,” the president proclaimed.

The questionnaire sent by the American newspaper — which López Obrador revealed before the article was printed — affirmed that “the investigation was closed after U.S. authorities recognized that it could provoke a diplomatic conflict with Mexico. To a large extent, the decision was made after the reaction of the Mexican government when the [Americans] arrested [Mexican] General Salvador Cienfuegos in 2020.”

AMLO responded to this during his public address: “They’re afraid of us, because Mexico is now respected. All [that information] is false, completely false,” the president declared, visibly upset. This was at least the fifth journalistic publication in two months about links between organized crime and his closest collaborators.

In the shadow of the media scandal and the president’s controversial reaction — which triggered an investigation for exposing the personal data of the American newspaper’s correspondent in Mexico — the episode was the last link in a long chain of frictions and disagreements between the Mexican government and the U.S. agencies operating in Mexico — the DEA in particular.

“The DEA is a headache in Mexico. It’s not new, it’s been going on for a long time,” declared former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard on Thursday. He served the president for the first five years of his administration. Ebrard didn’t hesitate to describe the latest wave of leaks as “revenge being taken by the DEA” for the restrictions that have been imposed on their agents in the Latin American country. He stated that “the objective is to call into question the political authority of the president of Mexico.”

The diagnosis made by four specialists consulted by EL PAÍS essentially doesn’t differ from Ebrard’s argument. “It’s a direct message from the DEA to López Obrador,” says political analyst Leonardo Curzio, from the North American Research Center at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “They’re telling him, ‘you’re still a very powerful president and we can’t [mess with you] right now, but here are the reports to remind you that you’re mortal, that you’ll longer be president and that bills will be collected.’”

The history of turbulence between López Obrador and the DEA inevitably goes back to the Cienfuegos case. Just minutes before former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s secretary of defense was detained at the Los Angeles airport, the then-U.S. ambassador, Christopher Landau, contacted Ebrard, notifying him that the arrest was pending and that there was a drug-trafficking case against the general “based on DEA accusations.” This is what the president narrates in one of his recent memoirs, an episode that has been corroborated by a former official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Regardless of the background, I didn’t accept — from the outset — the way in which they informed us,” López Obrador wrote. “I asked the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to convey to the highest level — including the Secretary of State and the attorney general of that country (the U.S.) — my annoyance, as a representative of the Mexican state, for the treatment received.”

“Ebrard’s first reaction was to say: ‘We hope they have a case, that they have evidence, because if not, there are going to be problems for the bilateral relationship,’” says the former official, who spoke with EL PAÍS on the condition of anonymity. The arrest took place on Thursday, October 15, 2020, two weeks before the U.S. presidential elections. A day later, López Obrador acknowledged the accusations against Cienfuegos. “This is an unequivocal example of the decomposition of the [rule of law]... of how the public service in the country was degraded during the neoliberal period,” he commented, referring to the administrations that preceded his.

Behind the scenes, Mexico asked the United States to review the judicial file. Meanwhile, that weekend, a team from the Foreign Ministry dedicated itself to reviewing whether, in fact, “there was a case” against the general. “Three days later, [Ebrard] presented his notes to me. I read them, asked several questions and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of anything and that they had fabricated the accusation,” wrote the president, who — from that moment onwards — changed his discourse.

On the Friday after the arrest, AMLO compared Cienfuegos to Genaro García Luna — former president Felipe Calderón’s secretary of public security — who had been arrested for drug-trafficking in the United States. After the weekend, however, he asked for restraint: “Not all of the Armed Forces should be blamed, we have to take care of an institution as important as the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA).” By November, Cienfuegos was repatriated to Mexico. And, in January 2021, he was exonerated of all the crimes he was accused of by the American authorities. William Barr — who was the U.S. attorney general at the time — has confessed in his memoirs that “the Cienfuegos case was not worth destroying any prospect of broader cooperation with the Mexicans.”

“What happened with Cienfuegos was a disaster,” the former Foreign Affairs official emphasizes. “From that moment onwards, the DEA became a hindrance to the bilateral relationship. The spaces for cooperation were reduced.” In January 2021, a reform to the National Security Law came into force, to regulate the activities of “foreign agents” in Mexico. This legislation obliged them to deliver periodic reports. They were also subjected to sanctions for “violating legal provisions that prohibit them from exercising functions reserved for the Mexican authorities.” The message to the DEA was completed in April 2021, when a DEA intelligence unit in Mexico City — in operation since the 1990s — was shuttered.

“To put it colloquially, [it was a disaster],” Curzio shrugs. For the specialist, the timing of the Cienfuegos scandal wasn’t a coincidence — the arrest took place just weeks before Americans went to the polls. “The DEA needs its own story that gives it political and budgetary space to justify [its existence] to the government, Congress and public opinion in the United States, when the war on drugs hasn’t improved,” he clarifies.

“The DEA’s pattern is that it has always gone it alone. We have four decades in which [the U.S. agency] attacks the president of Mexico time and time again. It has never changed,” comments Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for Mexico-United States Studies at the University of California in San Diego. The agency arrived in Mexico in the mid-1970s, but the breaking point in its relationship with Mexican authorities was in 1985, with the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Kiki Camarena at the hands of drug traffickers in Guadalajara. “From that moment on, the DEA went to the mountains — like goats — and adopted an almost feudal and personal agenda with Mexico, without it being necessarily anchored in the rest of the foreign policy priorities of the United States,” says Arturo Sarukhán, who served as the Mexican ambassador to the United States during the Calderón administration (2006-2012).

Sarukhán, however, considers that “López Obrador is the [cause] of his own clash with the DEA,” by destroying the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral security cooperation agreement signed during the Calderón administration. “What [AMLO] never understood is that the Mérida Initiative wasn’t about financing or the exchange of equipment or weapons; it was a straitjacket for U.S. agencies,” he says.

From his perspective, what this mechanism did was establish an institutional path for collaboration between both governments, given the plethora of interests that mark the bilateral relationship: those of the DEA, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy and their Mexican counterparts. Mexico and the United States aren’t monolithic entities: specialists agree that there’s distrust in key instances and there are unresolved issues that serve as levers for negotiation and pressure. Sarukhán warns that, under the current administration, “the disorder” has returned. This was the case with Cienfuegos and in the latest wave of leaks. “These are signs that the relationship — in matters of security — isn’t flowing, it’s bursting,” the former ambassador warns. “Cooperation is what generates trust, not the other way around.”

Paradoxically, it’s the complexity that surrounds the bilateral relationship that has largely saved it. Sarukhán explains that López Obrador can discredit the DEA in public or clash with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and, at the same time, maintain the good relationship that he has with the Biden administration. The political context in the U.S. — given that the Democratic Party is in power — also helps AMLO. “The immigration crisis has been a kind of kryptonite for Biden,” says Fernández de Castro. While Democrats have to explain the ins and outs of the crisis, Republicans can simplify the message and turn it into a political weapon. “The Republicans’ political narrative has been impeccable, their message to conservative voters is ‘they (Hispanics) are invading us,’” he notes.

Sarukhán affirms that the U.S. president’s line to government agencies regarding Mexico — a key ally in containing immigration — is clear: “Don’t piss off AMLO.” Fernández de Castro concurs. “For this reason, López Obrador feels very confident in his relationship with Biden.”

Despite the departure of Donald Trump and the deep differences with his successor, there are two U.S. priorities that have remained: migration and combating fentanyl-trafficking. Biden’s commitment to prioritizing border control affects those who work in the so-called War on Drugs: the DEA. This agency sees Mexico as a crucial territory for its operations. In February of last year, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram stated in Congress that it’s necessary for the Mexican government to “do more” in resolving these two key priorities. In July, she declared that fentanyl is produced “en masse” in Mexican territory. And, for months now, she’s insisted that the two main sources of the fentanyl that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year are the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The López Obrador administration — which interprets the accusations as diplomatic pressure — has gone to the other extreme, insisting that “fentanyl isn’t produced in Mexico.”

The stagnation in the security situation has been going on for years. This was evident during the Peña Nieto administration (2012-2018), in which the extraditions of drug lords fell to a record low. Fernández de Castro — President Calderón’s advisor on U.S. matters — acknowledges that there weren’t as many disagreements with the United States security agencies during the previous two administrations, because the notion of targeting the leaders of criminal organizations was an accepted idea on both sides of the border. However, the idea that the government of Mexico doesn’t have de-facto control over large parts of its territory and the assumption that organized crime has infiltrated different parts of the Mexican state have been instrumental for U.S. claims to get involved, especially around election time.

“For [the U.S. government], it’s absolutely irrelevant whether the PAN, the PRI or MORENA (Mexico’s three major political parties) govern. The only thing that matters to them is achieving their institutional objectives, which go beyond the interests of the government in power,” Curzio affirms.

The latest clash has occurred this past week, which also coincides with the one-year mark since García Luna — an appointee of the Calderón administration (2006-2012) — was found guilty in New York. Back then, members of the Mexican opposition complained about the absence of documentary evidence utilized during the trial, which was based mainly on the testimony of informants. López Obrador still uses the case as a political banner to attack his opponents, although now, the roles have been reversed: the opposition calls him a “narco-president” and the government is demanding material evidence for the claims made by the DEA.

The case against Cienfuegos didn’t go to court due to political pressure from Mexico — as recognized by the former U.S. attorney general himself — which is the same reason why the investigations against AMLO’s inner circle didn’t continue, according to The New York Times. In fact, the DEA has been on the trail of the last three presidential administrations in Mexico, despite the discomfort and problems that this has caused for successive U.S. governments. It’s also a reflection of how costly the failure of Mexico’s own justice system to resolve these issues has been: traffickers tend to be punished in another country, where the rules are completely different.

Recent events show that “the [weakness] of the bilateral agenda is enormously worrying,” as are the conditions the next presidents of Mexico and the United States will have to navigate starting in 2025, according to Sarukhán. “All the paths of the Republican campaign pass through the border with Mexico, whether it’s migration or fentanyl. In the Republican narrative, [Mexico] is the true national security challenge. It’s not China, it’s not Russia, it’s not what’s happening in the Middle East,” the former ambassador points out.

“All the elements for a muscular and confrontational [policy] — under the notion that ‘Mexico needs to be put in its place’ and that there’s a ‘narco-government’ in power — [could be in the cards],” Curzio notes, when asked about Trump’s possible return to the White House. Mexico will go to the polls on June 2, while the United States will vote on November 5.

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