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The US Cannot Whitewash Away Its Role in the Mexican “War on Drugs”

Mexico’s former secretary of national defense was arrested last month for alleged drug trafficking and money laundering. His trial will be important, but justice for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war on drugs means not only prosecuting involved Mexican officials, but also American officials who were complicit all along.

Former US secretary of defense James Mattis (L) welcomes General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (R) to the Pentagon in 2017. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

On October 15, Mexican general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested as he stepped off a plane in Los Angeles. He was subsequently charged with four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering during the period of his tenure as defense secretary in the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–18).

Denied bail, he is now awaiting transferal to New York to stand trial at the same Eastern District Court of New York that convicted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and is currently trying former security minister Genaro García Luna. If found guilty, the seventy-two-year-old retired general faces thirty years in prison, effectively a life sentence.

The charges allege that Cienfuegos, known as “El Padrino” or the Godfather, accepted millions of dollars in bribes from a cell of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel known as H2 in order to facilitate the manufacture, export to the United States, and distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

In practice, this meant providing protection to the cartel, assisting in sea shipments and turf expansion, and a form of networking in which Cienfuegos was to have introduced cartel members to other pliant members of the government that were instrumental in allowing them to capture and torture members of rival cartels while getting a number of their own freed from prison. Evidence was provided by a cell phone doctored by the DEA which, due to a fortuitous series of events, was to have found its way into the hands of the general.

Cienfuegos’s arrest ignited a political and diplomatic furor that has only grown in the intervening weeks. The arrest shines a bright light, once again, on both the narco-state that operated in Mexico prior to 2018, and the role of the United States in bolstering those administrations, working hand in hand with the very officials it has now placed in the dock. It also highlights the fine line President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is having to walk as he struggles to dismantle this powerful — and supremely dangerous — nexus of interests.

Walking the Line

From AMLO’s perspective, there are advantages to Cienfuegos’s arrest. For one, it allows him to get rid of a troublesome presence within the military community without his administration having to make the move itself and without the risk, if it did so, of Cienfuegos escaping through any number of rabbit holes that a long-corrupted judicial system enables for the powerful. It provides him, moreover, with the perfect pretext to purge the allies of the general that remain on active duty, as he has promised to do.

In addition to his history of alleged collusion in drug trafficking — which, indeed, is said to have begun well before his time in the Peña Nieto cabinet — Cienfuegos has a dark record as defense secretary. In June of 2014, Mexican soldiers massacred twenty-two people in the town of Tlatlaya in the State of Mexico.

After initially insisting that the soldiers had simply been returning fire, Cienfuegos was forced to walk back his denial in September. Operational standing orders signed just days before the massacre stated that troops should operate at night in order to take down criminals in the dark — effectively giving orders to kill.

Then, just days after the volte-face from the defense department, forty-three teaching students from the Rural Teacher’s College of Ayotzinapa were forcibly abducted from the town of Igaula, with a further six killed on the spot. Again, Cienfuegos stonewalled the investigation, denying any army involvement in the night’s events and even going so far as to refuse to allow soldiers stationed at the nearby military base to be interviewed.

Indeed, the struggle waged by family members and human rights groups merely to be able to access that base dragged on for four long years. It took until September of 2020 for the first arrest warrants to be issued against members of the military for alleged involvement in the disappearances.

But Cienfuegos himself was untouchable. In fact, no investigation against him in Mexico was pending at the time of his arrest. Although responsibility for this must be laid at the door of AMLO’s attorney general’s office, led by Alejandro Gertz Manero, it is part of a larger dynamic in Mexico going back decades.

In effect, the uninterrupted period of post-revolutionary rule has been based in an unwritten pact of complicity between the two spheres of power: the civilians would command and the military would obey, yes, but the latter would operate outside the law and beyond the reach of prosecution. The secretary of defense has always been an active-duty service member and, upon his departure, would present the incoming president with a shortlist of successors to choose from.

AMLO has attempted to navigate these waters with a degree of caution. First, he refused to choose from Cienfuegos’s list of successors in naming his own defense secretary, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval. Second, he disbanded the Mexican equivalent of the Secret Service, the Estado Mayor Presidencial, a military unit ostensibly designed to protect the president, but has a troubling history of espionage and participation in atrocities such as the massacre of protesting students in Tlatelolco in 1968.

And third, he also — wisely — chose not to live in the former presidential residence known as Los Pinos, a mansion tucked away in Mexico City’s sprawling Chapultepec Park that would have made him a sitting duck in the case of a military uprising, or cuartelazo.

That being said, however, ALMO has showered the military with a degree of largesse unparalleled in recent history, including massive construction contracts, control of the ports and customs, and a militarized force known as the National Guard empowered by constitutional amendment to engage in civilian policing matters.

After initially signaling that he had been aware of an investigation underway against Cienfuegos in the United States, AMLO has since taken pains to distance himself from the arrest. While it is both proper and strategically shrewd that he not “tip off” Cienfuegos (as previous presidents would undoubtedly have done, had they been in a position to do so), AMLO is also keen not to be seen by a restive military as having offered him up on a silver platter to the United States.

For while the the arrest of Cienfuegos removes a significant impediment to justice in cases such as Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa, it also threatens to destabilize the civil-military understanding that has held sway in Mexico for so long. While consigning this pact to the dustbin of history is a positive and necessary thing, it is also a delicate one.

Driving the Narrative

Another problem with “outsourcing” the arrest of key figures is that such a move allows the United States to drive the narrative, painting itself as the adult power cleaning up a mess that its hapless neighbor cannot.

This is inevitably reinforced by a lazy mainstream media — more appropriate to a Netflix series than serious journalism — which seeks to depict Mexico as a hopelessly corrupt land of drug lords and colluded officials, without being able — or willing — to distinguish shifting dynamics, popular struggles, or indeed, one administration from another.

Above and beyond the pains the United States has taken to shape the narrative, what it has truly been driving is the problem itself. In addition to the obvious fact that American demand has fueled the drug crisis since its inception, successive US presidents have supported, armed, and provided diplomatic cover for Mexican governments that they have known to be in hock with organized crime.

The Bush and Obama administrations armed Mexico through the Merida Initiative just as Felipe Calderón was launching a “drug war” that would coat the nation in blood. The unqualified support continued for Peña Nieto, with a 2015 State Department report, for example, finding his government to respect freedoms of speech, press, and the right to peaceful assembly and association — certainly news to anyone attending a major demonstration or practicing journalism at the time.

Indeed, American support extended to the very people now or soon to be in the dock in the Eastern District Court. The United States worked closely with García Luna during his tenure as security minister despite knowing of his ties to drug cartels; according to former ambassador Roberta Jacobson, the United States had “no choice” but to rely on him.

The ties even spilled over into the business sphere, with both the former FBI chief at the US Embassy in Mexico, Raúl Roldán, and the former director of the CIA’s clandestine service, José Rodriguez, serving as board members at a García Luna security company until 2018.

That same year, presumably while he was being investigated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), General Cienfuegos was awarded the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education by the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, a Department of Defense school. In presenting the general, Sergio de la Peña, then the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, remarked: “We began at a good starting point but it has arrived a place that is unprecedented … I consider him a great mentor, a good partner, but most importantly, a friend.”

The fact that Cienfuegos was caught by a DEA hot phone while secretary of defense, moreover, again raises the specter of the United States spying on foreign governments as disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Undercover DEA agents operate with a freedom that is virtually absolute in Mexico; according to investigative reporter J. Jesús Esquivel, they are illegally armed and have even committed crimes in order to protect their informants in the government, police, and cartels.

In light of the Cienfuegos arrest, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has signaled that Mexico will seek to revise the existing cooperation arrangement with the agency, as well as requesting information on American cartels that operate independently of Mexican ones. This revision cannot take place too soon.

Meanwhile, Cienfuegos is doubtlessly preparing to offer information in an attempt to negotiate a reduced sentence. Considering the Mexican security agencies spied on AMLO in his years as an activist and leader of the opposition, this may even include information about the president himself.

Ultimately, lost in the news of another high-profile arrest are the Mexican victims of the atrocities condoned and covered up by Cienfuegos — and, in a larger sense, of a “war on drugs” that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands. In this narrative, they are invisible.

What counts here is the United States, and its cynical attempt to show it is proactively fighting a situation in which it is deeply complicit. If the likes of García Luna and General Cienfuegos are to be investigated and held to account, as they must be, then so should the people on the US side of the border who played ball with them for years, upholding the very narco-state they now seek to prosecute with such vigor.