After more than a year of quietly choking off resources behind the scenes, Mexico's president said last week that he has effectively shut down an elite police unit trained and funded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate drug cartels, claiming it was corrupt.
"That group, which was supposedly a high-level strategic group, was infiltrated by criminals,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a press conference last week, confirming reports that the DEA’s “Sensitive Investigative Unit,” or SIU, had been disbanded after more than 25 years of joint operations in Mexico.
So far, the scrapping of the SIU has been portrayed as yet another blow to bilateral security cooperation on anti-narcotics investigations under López Obrador. But current and former U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke with VICE News say the SIU has indeed been a corruption-plagued disaster for years.
One agent with extensive experience operating in Mexico called the SIU “corrupt and dangerous” and was not sorry to see its demise. “I am glad,” the agent said. “They were dirty, no-good criminals. It’s the best thing that ever happened to the U.S. government in Mexico.”
The Mexican SIU agents underwent special vetting and training in the U.S., and the squad has been credited with assisting American agents in major cases, including the capture and prosecution of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán-Loera, the notorious Sinaloa Cartel leader now serving life in prison.
But multiple sources, some retired and willing to speak publicly and others who requested anonymity because they didn’t want to jeopardize jobs or ongoing investigations, described the SIU as deeply dysfunctional and constantly leaking to the cartels. Corruption is endemic among law enforcement across Mexico, but the SIU was supposed to be the exception—a group of local cops the DEA could trust. By all accounts, the SIU was dirty.
One former SIU chief, Iván Reyes-Arzate, was sentenced in February to 10 years in U.S. federal prison and, according to witness testimony from 2018, leaked info that got a DEA informant kidnapped. Three other high-level Mexican law enforcement officials currently face narco-corruption indictments in U.S. courts. Leaks from the SIU have previously been linked by ProPublica to a Los Zetas cartel massacre in the town of Allende, and a deadly attack on innocent guests at a Holiday Inn in the northern city of Monterrey.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Mexican officials would not elaborate on their president’s public comments from his April 21 press conference, where López Obrador said he was restoring Mexico’s sovereignty and relations with the United States were now “good, but with respect.”
People familiar with the situation say the SIU program is not exactly dead, just on life support, with the potential to restart in future years. The funding—part of billions’ worth of U.S. security aid to Mexico—remains in place, but López Obrador’s government has reassigned many of the officers involved and choked off resources. Collaboration on security issues continues through the Mexican attorney general’s office and the U.S. Embassy, which has attachés from other agencies that investigate cartels, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
One former high-level DEA official who worked closely with the SIU characterized the supposedly elite and vetted unit as a mess. Similar programs exist in over a dozen other countries and some local agents collaborate successfully with the DEA, the source said, but in Mexico: “You don’t trust them with anything. You automatically assume anything you give them will be given to their superiors, the narco-traffickers, or a higher-up in the government.”
The official said that under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, the SIU had more than 100 people assigned to sleek offices near the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. But it was obvious there were problems.
“Vehicles couldn’t be located, radios couldn't be located,” the ex-DEA official recalled. “Guys weren’t showing up to work. Nobody knew what the hell they were doing.”
All of the U.S.-purchased vehicles were recovered after an audit, but they soon sat parked with nobody around to drive. After López Obrador took office in 2018, most of the SIU agents were transferred out and not replaced. The unit’s head count dwindled to around ten, and most of those people had not undergone the vetting and training, which involves polygraph and drug tests, a background check, and classes at the DEA’s offices in Quantico, Virginia.
Another former U.S. official involved in cartel prosecutions echoed that assessment, saying the drawdown of the SIU began soon after López Obrador took office and was part of a broader chilling of relations over narco-trafficking cases. A military unit known as SEMAR, which includes the Mexican equivalent of the Navy SEALs, was more trusted than the SIU and took the lead in hunting El Chapo and other major cartel bosses, but it has also been sidelined for reasons that remain publicly unexplained.
“He took those steps as soon as he came in,” the ex-official said of López Obrador. “He basically disbanded the SEMAR group that captured Chapo and the other guys. They all got reassigned. Same with the vetted unit: Their resources were reduced down to basically zero.”
The ex-official, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing pending cases, said that in years past, corruption in the SIU was an open secret. DEA agents would feed intelligence to certain members knowing they were in the pocket of a rival cartel, he said, especially during a war that erupted in 2008 between El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel and a splinter faction called the Beltrán-Leyva Organization, or BLO.
“You had to make sure if you were sharing information, you would only share it with the folks in the unit who were not working for the group you were targeting,” the ex-official said. “You could share BLO info with the Sinaloa guys, and Sinaloa info with the guys in BLO, but not the other way around, obviously. It was this very delicate dance with them.”
While U.S. and Mexican leaders were publicly touting their successful cooperation in taking down the leaders of several major drug cartels, prosecutors in New York now allege the top commanders in charge of the federal police were on the payrolls of the BLO and the Sinaloa Cartel.
Mexico’s former head of public security, Genaro García Luna, the face of the militarized drug war under ex-president Felipe Calderón, was arrested in 2019 on federal drug conspiracy charges and allegations that he took "tens of millions of dollars" from the cartels. García Luna has pleaded not guilty and his case is scheduled for a trial later this year.
Two members of García Luna’s inner circle are also accused by U.S. prosecutors of being on the cartel payroll. One is Ramón Pequeño, who led the Mexican federal police anti-narcotics division that oversaw the SIU; his location in Mexico is unknown. Luis Cárdenas Palomino, another high-ranking federal police official, is reportedly jailed in Mexico’s Altiplano prison.
“We worked with them, and then at a certain point it was, ‘Well, these guys are all corrupt. Let’s prosecute them,’” the former U.S. official said, describing the cases.
One unnamed Mexican official told the magazine Proceso that López Obrador took issue with the U.S. Justice Department’s plea deal with Reyes-Arzate, which was interpreted as a sign that the ex-SIU commander is cooperating and could testify against García Luna.
“The president took it as a joke,” the Mexican official reportedly said. “Reyes-Arzate is proven to be mixed up with the narcos, with the Sinaloa Cartel, but the DEA pardoned him. That’s why there can’t be collaboration with U.S. agents.”
The federal judge who sentenced Reyes-Arzate took the unusual step of explicitly saying in open court that the defendant is not a cooperator, but that has not persuaded skeptical Mexican officials. The source who spoke to Proceso called the Reyes-Arzate plea agreement “a hypocrisy” that “equally exposed the corruption of the American agents.”
Securing the cooperation of ex-narcos has been a key strategy for the DEA and U.S. federal prosecutors. El Chapo’s trial, which ended with a conviction in January 2019, surfaced allegations that the Sinaloa Cartel bribed a member of López Obrador’s campaign staff in 2006, as well as bombshell testimony from a former high-ranking cartel member who alleged Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100 million payoff during his presidency. Both men have vehemently denied the claims, but the recent extradition of Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernández to face narco-corruption charges has shown that U.S. prosecutors are not afraid to charge a former head of state.
Relations between the DEA and López Obrador’s government hit a nadir in 2020 following the surprise arrest of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, a former secretary of defense who was accused of cartel corruption and taken into custody while coming to visit Disneyland with his family. Mexican officials pressured the U.S. into dropping the charges, Cienfuegos was allowed to return home with no repercussions, and Mexico subsequently passed a law that requires foreign agents to share intelligence with their domestic counterparts.
American agents continue to have a presence in Mexico, but the new law has further hamstrung the DEA’s ability to work, said Derek Maltz, former head of the agency’s Special Operations Division.
“Investigations would be significantly compromised if any foreign agent followed the rules AMLO put in place after the Cienfuegos disaster,” Maltz said. “You can’t work that way in Mexico. You’ll have agents and families killed, and informants killed. It has made a drastic impact on overall operations in Mexico.”
While the SIU is touted for successes in other countries — a Colombian SIU agent testified against El Chapo—watchdogs within the U.S. government have flagged problems with “lack of accountability and oversight” since at least 2007. VICE News previously obtained documents showing how the DEA was struggling to address the same problems more than a decade later.
And it appears little has changed.
Last August, the Justice Department’s Inspector General again warned that “the DEA’s involvement with and funding of foreign law enforcement units in areas known for pervasive corruption can pose significant risks to DEA personnel, information security, the safety of U.S. and foreign civilians, and diplomatic relations.” In October, a Colombian police captain who oversaw that country’s SIU program pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to charges that he leaked sensitive information about DEA investigations to drug traffickers.
In another case, an ex-DEA agent who worked with the Colombian SIU admitted to conspiring to launder millions of dollars from DEA-controlled accounts and spending the money on luxury cars and jewelry. Two SIU members were present with DEA agents during cartel-organized “sex parties” with prostitutes, according to an Inspector General’s report from 2015.
Even SEMAR, the vaunted Mexican military unit credited with twice capturing El Chapo, has faced credible allegations of disappearing civilians and terrorizing communities suspected of sheltering fugitive kingpins. While easily written off as collateral damage in the war against the cartels, U.S. training and funding of foreign police and military has left a trail of corruption and violence across Latin America.
Law enforcement sources defended the SIU program as a whole, but longtime drug warriors who served for the DEA in Mexico saw the futility in the “elite” unit’s work, which was ultimately funded by American taxpayers.
“If you put a dollar amount on the product seized,” the ex-DEA official said “we were probably paying millions of dollars for one kilo.”
Emily Green contributed reporting from Mexico City.