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Felipe Calderón’s Administration Had Ties to Drug Cartels — And the United States Knew All Along

When the US spearheaded the Mexican war on drugs in 2006, many suspected links between members of Felipe Calderón’s administration and the cartels they were charged with stamping out. Now, fresh evidence makes clear that not only were top government figures profiting personally from links to the cartels, but that the US knew about it all along.

Former President of Mexico Felipe Calderon speaks on stage during the 2015 Concordia Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on October 1, 2015 in New York City. Leigh Vogel / Getty for Concordia Summit

Sometimes among all the high-blown rhetoric, symposia, and communiqués, the curtain is pulled back to reveal the simple levers that operate the diplomatic world. In a remarkable interview published in the Mexican newsmagazine Proceso earlier this month, former US ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson blithely revealed that during the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006–12), the United States had known that the Mexican secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna, had personal ties to drug cartels. 

What’s more, the information, according to Jacobson, came from Mexican sources. “The Mexican government knew as much as we did, if not more, and never took action at the time. For that reason, I find it a little naïve to blame the United States for not taking its own measures,” the former ambassador said.

As the nation’s “top cop” in the Calderón government, the allegation is that García Luna served as the front man for the Sinaloa Cartel, facilitating its shipments of cocaine and other drugs into the United States while leaking inside information regarding official investigations and the activities of rival cartels. For this, he was to have been paid the handsome sum of $6–10 million.   

According to Jacobson, however, the US government had no choice but to accept things as they were. “You have no alternative but to work with the members of the government and the presidential cabinet,” she said. “There were many issues we worked with him on, always carefully, but we had to rely on him.”

Necessary Allies

Following the furor that the interview provoked in Mexico, Jacobson took to Twitter to add that none of the information she had received about García Luna was corroborated — as if that made a difference. The revelation — and the fact that Jacobson felt so free to make it — reveals an axiom of American diplomacy: if you’re on the side of Uncle Sam, it doesn’t much matter what you do. 

Calderón’s presidency was the heyday of the Merida Initiative, the “security agreement” that, under Bush and then Obama, flooded Mexico with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of airplanes, helicopters, and other military equipment, in addition to billions more in direct arms sales. In the name of fighting cartels, the United States was arming a government it had every reason to believe was in collusion with them. 

Since his time as energy secretary in the Vicente Fox administration, Felipe Calderón had been traveling to the United States to pimp the state-owned energy sector to private investors. As for Garcia Luna, at the time of his appointment in late 2006, US embassy spokesman Charles Barclay gushed that he was a “trusted liaison, partner and friend of the FBI since his days at the [Federal Police Force] PFP.” Even more importantly, “his attitude toward the US is friendly” — so much so, apparently, that when niggling information about his ties to the Sinaloa Cartel were to come out in subsequent years, it could be overlooked with the usual mantra: “We had to work with him.”

Would another government elsewhere in Latin America have been treated with such indulgence? If the State Department had come across information — corroborated or not — about a member of the Lula, or Morales, or Chávez cabinets ties to cartels, would it have been handled with such political discretion — only to be revealed a decade later once the government in question was safely out of office and the figure in question safely behind bars? In light of ongoing attempts by the US Southern Command to paint Cuba and Venezuela as “narco-dictatorships,” one can safely assume the answer to be no. Calderón and García Luna were necessary allies and, thus, a blind eye had to be turned. Boys will be boys. 

Denials, Denials

In Mexico, the Jacobson interview provoked a renewed series of denials from Felipe Calderón, each less convincing than the last. While Garcia Luna was still in office, a string of journalists, activists, generals, police commissioners, and members of Congress spoke out courageously about his criminal connections and sudden spike in wealth — over $50 million of which, according to a Univision report, were stashed in a series of tax havens around the world. So tight were the pair that Calderón built a bar in the basement of the then-presidential residence Los Pinos at which García Luna was a regular guest. The drinking sessions reportedly spilling over into games of soccer and Gotcha on the grounds.  

While they romped, journalists feared for their lives. For daring to investigate the links between García Luna and the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s premier investigative journalist, Anabel Hernández, was threatened with death. In a recent interview on the Astillero Informa program, Argentinian journalist Olga Wornat evoked all of the grim horror of those years. In 2011, while working on a book entitled Felipe el oscuro (The Darkness of Felipe), Wornat was harassed and threatened repeatedly — up to nine times a day at its peak — until she was ultimately forced to flee to the United States. Her assistant on the project, Edgar Monroy, was forced into exile in the Czech Republic, where he stayed until Calderón left office. The threats even reached Gabriel Sandoval, director of the Mexican branch of the Planeta Publishing House. The book was pulled from publication and, nearly a decade later, still has not seen the light of day.

Fast and Furious

Calderón’s amnesia extends to Operation Fast and Furious, the disastrous Obama-era program that, like the Bush-era initiatives that preceded it, ran firearms into Mexico in a failed attempt to track their routes. When pressed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) on what he’d known about the operation, Calderón responded with more denial, insisting he’d only become aware of it once it was public. In response, AMLO announced that his government would be sending a diplomatic note to the United States government requesting all available information on it. “There are two options,” said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, explaining the reasons for the move. “Either the Mexican public and Congress were lied to by their authorities saying they knew nothing about this, or Mexico’s sovereignty was violated, which is of great interest to public opinion.” Put more bluntly, the Calderón administration was either wantonly negligent in allowing a foreign government to arm its people or directly complicit in it. Considering that those arms were then used to kill Mexican citizens, it would be a crime tantamount to treason.

Unfortunately for Calderón, his denials fail to convince here as well. As far back as 2007, then-US Attorney General Michael Mukasey met with his Mexican counterpart, Eduardo Medina Mora. The briefing paper for the meeting, which subsequently became cause for a great deal of Congressional tussle, stated that:

ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] has recently worked jointly with Mexico on the first-ever attempt to have a controlled delivery of weapons being smuggled into Mexico by a major arms trafficker … [T]he first attempts at this controlled delivery have not been successful … To that end, it is essential that a Mexican vetted unit be assigned to work with ATF in this regard. ATF’s attaché in Mexico City has briefed Attorney General Medina Mora on this attempted controlled delivery, and stressed the importance of a vetted unit being assigned.

Given that the Calderón administration had been directly informed about one of its predecessors, how could it have not known about Operation Fast and Furious? Furthermore, between 2008–9, members of the Attorney General’s office under Medina Mora received multiple trainings from the ATF in the tracking and identification of weapons. Medina Mora is even reported to have sent a liaison to the Phoenix Office of the ATF to deal with matters related to Fast and Furious: Carlos Fernando Luque Ordóñez, son of a former head of military intelligence. Finally, in a video announcing the dispatching of the diplomatic note, Foreign Minister Ebrard cited none less than Eric Holder himself as saying that Mexican authorities were aware of what was going on at the time. Any identification and tracing of arms on Mexican soil, Ebrard continued, could only have been done with the full participation of the federal government.  

Commission or Omission

Despite the recent diplomatic activity, AMLO has so far proven reluctant to deal with the wrongdoing of previous administrations. Both during the 2018 presidential campaign and in his inaugural address, he talked about putting a punto final, or full stop, to the “horrible history” of the past, likely with an eye to ensuring a smooth transition of power from outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto. And despite a few high-profile arrests at home, the biggest fish — such as former PEMEX Director Emilio Lozoya and García Luna himself — have been captured abroad.  

In part, this may have to do with power struggles within the administration. While the Financial Intelligence Unit led by Santiago Nieto Castillo has been assiduous in tracking dirty money and freezing accounts, the Attorney General’s office, led by Alejandro Gertz Manero, has dragged its feet. The worry, indeed, is that holdovers from previous administrations in key positions are blocking these investigations from going forward. At the same time, the polarized atmosphere and constant attempts by the corporate press to paint AMLO as authoritarian would ensure that any move to hold former governments to account would be painted as a crude power play rather than a necessary step of historical justice.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility rests with the administration itself. Its reticence may reflect a strategic desire to bide its time until more evidence emerges and a general consensus forms around the need to prosecute. But if AMLO believes he can simply bury the past with a punto final, he may find that history has a way of refusing to recede obediently away. The president likes to assert that his Attorney General’s office is the first in Mexico’s history that is truly independent of the executive. But with independence comes the obligation to prosecute where evidence exists. In that sense, if Felipe Calderón and many more avoid going to trial, a political decision would still have been made: not of commission, but of omission.