By Jeremy Kryt
CALI, Colombia—Mexico’s House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday aimed at reining in the powers of “foreign agents.” Critics say the move is intended to restrict the role of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) operations related to the country’s drug war.
The legislation is described as a series of “reforms” to the country’s National Security Law. As it was first proposed by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often known by his initials as AMLO), and ratified last week by the Mexican Senate, it now becomes law.
AMLO has framed the bill as an attempt to defend national sovereignty and “provide order,” saying that, “We need to have clear rules for cooperation” with “outsiders” present on Mexican soil.
In a violation of international norms, the so-called reform strips U.S. agents of all diplomatic immunity. The new law will also force agents from the DEA, FBI, and all other agencies to submit whatever intelligence they collect to Mexican officials, who must in turn relay the information to federal authorities.
Even a phone call or text message sent between U.S. agents and members of the Mexican government—including on the state or local level—would require a written report sent to multiple government departments.
Shortly before he stepped down, former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr condemned the measure, saying it “would have the effect of making cooperation between our countries more difficult” and “make the citizens of Mexico and the United States less safe.”
“The passage of this legislation can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting,” Barr said.
Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast that crime groups were likely delighted at the news:
“The big winners in this entire process are the cartels, who have to be celebrating with this convoluted and disastrous outcome. Sadly, the Mexican government is shooting itself in the foot,” Vigil said.
“A Compelling Portrait of Corruption”
The new law comes at a time when Mexico is facing peak levels of bloodshed and growing cartel power. The year 2020 is on pace to be the most violent since the country’s drug war began, with at least 24,116 recorded murders through the first eight months (the latest figure for which data is available). Meanwhile a recently leaked CIA report indicated that 20 percent of the country is now controlled by the cartels.
Such grim statistics would seem to make this a strange time to curtail help from U.S. law enforcement, given that “Mexico’s security forces are ill-trained and the DEA normally planned the operations and provided oversight to ensure they were successful,” according to Vigil.
That might account for why some Mexican lawmakers had hoped to delay a vote on the bill so as to allow for more time to study the costs and repercussions.
Instead the vote was held “almost without discussion” said Dr. Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico [UNAM], in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“There was no forum for debate,” Benítez-Manaut said. “Many in the public sector are angry at the rapid and undemocratic way in which these reforms were approved.”
The push for the reforms comes on the heels of—and is widely seen as a response to—the arrest of Mexican general Salvador Cienfuegos last October in Los Angeles. A former National Defense Secretary, Cienfuegos was the subject of a lengthy DEA investigation that resulted in an indictment on four counts of drug trafficking.
However, at the Mexican military’s behest, officials in Mexico petitioned the U.S. for Cienfuegos’s release—allegedly threatening to sever all ties with the DEA if charges against the general weren’t dropped. Then-AG Barr acquiesced, and Cienfuegos was flown home a free man in November, though the army’s reputation remains in tatters from the incident.
Many observers believe the new bill is an attempt to limit the DEA’s power so as to prevent any further embarrassments.
“It is known in Mexico that these reforms were requested by and—due to its poorly worded content—probably written by the [current] National Defense Secretary,” said Benitéz-Manaut.
A senior law enforcement official within Mexico, who requested anonymity so as to speak freely, said that the “there is no doubt the new law came about as a result of the arrest of General Cienfuegos.”
The official also said that AMLO’s growing reliance on the army to fight the cartels and carry out policing duties means the top commanders now hold great sway over civilian authorities in Mexico.
In arresting Cienfuegos “the DEA miscalculated just how militarized this country has become,” the official said. “Maybe the CIA should have warned them.”
The DEA’s Vigil agreed that the new laws were enacted in part to “placate the army” as well as to “bow to the pressure of corrupt officials who worry about DEA operations and intelligence collection” leading to them being found out.
“The DEA is being punished for the arrest of a corrupt general who in all likelihood will go free. It paints a compelling portrait of systemic corruption,” said Vigil.
“This Will Be an Unmitigated Disaster”
That systemic corruption is at the heart of critics’ concerns about the new regulations.
“This will be an unmitigated disaster,” said Robert Bunker, research director at the security analytics firm Futures. “Given the corruption and penetration of Mexican governmental institutions by the cartels, bilateral cooperation will be severely degraded.”
The penchant for crime groups to penetrate high-level government institutions is precisely why the DEA had been circumspect about sharing sensitive information with its counterparts in Mexico.
“The DEA was able to filter information as deemed appropriate to prevent widespread distribution [and] eliminate the temptation for officials to make money by selling it. With the new law those filters will be gone,” said Vigil, who spent more than a decade stationed in Mexico.
There are numerous, well-documented cases of Mexican officials receiving bribes to reveal DEA intel to crime groups, including one in which vetted Mexican officers leaked information which led to the massacre of scores of people near the Texas border.
In another high-profile incident, a Mexican general who headed up the nation’s anti-drug agency was convicted of selling secrets to narco-traffickers. And in 2019, former “top cop” and Security Secretary Genaro García Luna was rolled up by U.S. agents for being on the dole from the Sinaloa cartel.
Political scientist Benítez-Manaut said the reforms reflect “a desire for control by [Mexican] police and intelligence agents that has no chance of being effective. No government gives detailed information to another of the work carried out by its own agents.”
In addition to the forced sharing of information, the newly enacted legislation will also prevent the DEA from participating in vital field work activities. For example, in the 2016 arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the DEA had its own agents embedded to provide assistance and oversee the operation by Mexican Marines.
“If this [reform] had happened several years ago, Chapo Guzmán would still be on the loose, pumping tons of drugs into the U.S. consumer market and generating wholesale violence in Mexico,” Vigil said.
Another concern is that the fallout from Mexico’s crackdown on U.S. agents might have further implications for the region.
“If other countries follow Mexico’s example, the DEA would really be in serious trouble,” Vigil said.
Futures director Bunker concurred:
“The DEA may now find itself increasingly unwelcome in partner nations in Latin America and denied support. If these patterns continue DEA special agent safety concerns will also come into play [due to] losing their diplomatic immunity status.”
As for future bilateral efforts between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement, Vigil said the increased distrust will cause relations to “fester”:
“The reform will roll back the clock to a time of major distrust and limited coordination when communication and collaborative efforts were limited and most DEA agents did not want to work with Mexican security forces.”
Benítez-Manaut referred to the new-found rift as a product of “reciprocal hostility.”
“Mexico considered the arrest of Cienfuegos an act of hostility, and the U.S. considers the new law an act of hostility toward them,” he said.
“Now we must act together to rebuild trust between our two countries.”
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