Lawmakers in Mexico have passed a new law that limits the power and restricts the operations of foreign law enforcement agents in the country, raising serious questions as to how this will impact the joint fight against organized crime groups with the United States.
Mexico’s congress approved reforms to the national security law on December 15, which removes diplomatic immunity for foreign officials, requires them to obtain a permit from the Defense Ministry to carry a firearm and directs them to share any security intelligence obtained in the country with their Mexican counterparts, among other stipulations, according to the legislation.
The law, which the senate approved December 9, does not single out officials from any particular country, but the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has had a permanent presence in Mexico since the 1970s, is likely to be one of the agencies most impacted.
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador initially sent a proposal to “regulate” the presence of foreign officials in early December, according to Proceso. The move came on the heels of the arrest of the country’s former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, on US drug trafficking charges in mid-October.
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The arrest sent shockwaves through both Mexico and the United States. Mexican officials had not been informed of the multi-year investigation into Cienfuegos, or the indictment filed against him more than a year earlier in August 2019. For some former US officials, the importance of maintaining the US-Mexico relationship far outweighed such a high-profile arrest.
López Obrador was later able to broker a backroom deal with US officials, and Attorney General William Barr dropped the charges against Cienfuegos in mid-November. The former defense secretary was subsequently freed from jail and flown back to Mexico, where he is under investigation, but he has yet to be charged with any crimes.
US agencies have long worked closely with their Mexican counterparts to arrest top drug traffickers, to dismantle transnational criminal groups and to eradicate illicit poppy and marijuana crops, among other things. Attorney General Barr said he was “troubled" by the legislation in a December 11 statement. He added it “can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting.”
However, these joint efforts, coupled with billions of dollars in US assistance, have not garnered the desired security gains. Since Mexico scaled up its militarized fight against organized crime in 2006, more than 200,000 people have been murdered and some 70,000 others disappeared. The country’s homicide rate has hit record highs in each of the last three years, and it is set to do so again in 2020.
InSight Crime Analysis
Reconfiguring the decades-long relationship between US security agents and local Mexican officials after significant shortcomings is needed, but the recently approved reforms restricting foreign operations in Mexico are almost certain to make tackling organized crime more difficult.
“[The law] is really going to hinder these efforts, especially because of how crucial the information that US agencies provide to Mexican authorities is,” said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the Head of Security Research Programs at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican Studies.
To be sure, President López Obrador recognized the significance of the US and Mexican governments sharing information in early June when intelligence shared by the DEA played a critical role in helping Mexican authorities freeze a number of bank accounts linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación -- CJNG).
Aside from formal, top-level cooperation between high-ranking officials, a considerable amount of information sharing also takes place at the middle and lower levels. US and Mexican officials exchange tips and intelligence on potential informants and cooperating witnesses through a variety of avenues.
With foreign officials like members of the DEA now restricted and open to prosecution in Mexico, US agents will be less inclined to put themselves at risk to obtain mutually beneficial information worth sharing.
“There’s no incentive for these conversations and exchanges to take place,” according to Farfán-Méndez. As a result, such channels for sharing information will likely dry up, ultimately hindering broader intelligence gathering used to support prosecutions and disrupt the operations of organized crime groups.
That said, US agencies don’t have a clean record in Mexico. At times, sensitive US intelligence shared with Mexican officials specially vetted by the DEA has landed in the wrong hands. In one infamous case, Zetas gunmen gunned down civilians in the city of Allende in 2011 while they searched for informants who they learned were cooperating with DEA agents.
A year earlier, the DEA abandoned a joint undercover operation to track a Zetas leader after discovering it was compromised. The agents evacuated the area before gunmen sent by the criminal group arrived at the scene, and did not aid in the subsequent investigation into the kidnapping and presumed murder of four individuals, according to a ProPublica investigation.
In 2018, Vice News reported that the DEA was still “working to fix major issues” that the Justice Department’s Inspector General had identified a decade earlier in a 2007 report, including “significant deficiencies” with its “management and oversight” of investigative activities in Mexico.
In other instances, pertinent information isn’t shared with Mexican officials at all.
With the case of Cienfuegos, for example, the DEA and the Justice Department spent more than a year investigating the former defense secretary before his arrest. Yet the US State Department didn’t mention even a word to their Mexican colleagues. This infuriated Mexico’s defense establishment, which may have influenced President López Obrador’s decision to pressure the United States into dropping the charges against Cienfuegos.
Despite these missteps and a lack of long-term success, the DEA’s intelligence-gathering has been instrumental in arresting, prosecuting and convicting high-profile traffickers like former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” which would not have been possible without the help of US intelligence.
But the US-backed “kingpin strategy” of targeting and arresting the heads of organized crime groups has come with significant drawbacks, not least of which is the massive atomization of criminal groups and the absence of a subsequent strategy to deal with the fallout.
Still, the reforms to Mexico's security law will undoubtedly impact the ways that US and Mexican officials cooperate, which doesn't bode well for tackling organized crime groups.
“It sends a horrible message about trust and shared responsibility, even though the challenges Mexico faces are very closely linked to the United States and should be handled from a transnational perspective," Farfán-Méndez told InSight Crime.
What’s more, the new security law does not offset the potential absence of crucial intelligence and address persistent structural issues that hinder Mexico's anti-crime efforts. This includes systemic deficiencies in the judicial system that contribute to sky-high impunity rates, the inadequate training and investigative capacity of police -- especially at the local level -- and widespread corruption, which organized crime groups rely on to operate successfully.