A New Law in Mexico Limiting Foreign Agents Is a Warning to the US

The new rules promise to limit agencies such as the DEA in Mexico, and to be one of the first diplomatic headaches for President-elect Joe Biden when he takes office.
December 16, 2020, 11:00pm
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Bilateral co-operation on security and drug-trafficking between Mexico and the United States could be about to get complicated. Police work at the scene after the murder of a man in the state of Mexico. Photo: Jair Cabrera Torres, picture alliance via Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY — Mexican lawmakers voted to strip immunity from foreign law enforcement agents working in the country this week, a move directed at the United States that sets up a diplomatic challenge for President-elect Joe Biden. 

The new law, backed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his ruling Morena party, seeks to eliminate all “acts of foreign interference in national affairs that may affect the Mexican state” and will give Mexican authorities sweeping powers to prosecute foreign agents on any number of offenses. 

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The legislation, expected to take effect this week, requires foreign agents — including members of the U.S’s Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies involved in drug cartel investigations — to turn over any information they collect on security matters to Mexican authorities. They will have to get a permit from the Ministry of Defense to carry a firearm. And Mexican officials will have to submit reports about contact they’ve had with foreign agents. 

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The new law follows a secret, years-long DEA investigation that led to the October arrest of Mexico’s former Defense Secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. The arrest infuriated Mexico’s president and top government officials, and cemented the perception of DEA agents here running amok. After Mexican officials threatened to kick the DEA and other U.S. agents out of the country entirely, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against Cienfuegos and agreed to send him back to Mexico, where he’s now said to be under investigation.

The new law is a direct result of the Cienfuegos incident, according to Jaime López, a security consultant who served as acting secretary of Mexico’s National Public Security System in 2013.

“It’s kind of a big fuck you to the U.S.,” López said. “It kind of serves as a warning, if you will.” 

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But, he said, the new law will be very difficult to enforce.

“It would cause a lot of diplomatic conflict to actually enforce it,” López said. “You would also expect the American government to reduce the profile of its agents and the number of meetings.” 

But, he said, the new law will be very difficult to enforce.

“It would cause a lot of diplomatic conflict to actually enforce it,” López said. “You would also expect the American government to reduce the profile of its agents and the number of meetings.” 

But even selective enforcement could create enormous risks for foreign agents and their Mexican sources, said Ximena Medellin, an associate professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico, who has studied the law extensively.

Foreign agents and embassy officials sometimes meet confidentially with dissidents or victims of political persecution, and they won’t want to reveal those discussions with Mexican officials, said Medellin.

“The law might be symbolic. But the problem is you never know. Mexican officials might decide someone is bothering them or not convenient to them and start a criminal prosecution against them,” she added. 

But even selective enforcement could create enormous risks for foreign agents and their Mexican sources, said Ximena Medellin, an associate professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico, who has studied the law extensively.

Foreign agents and embassy officials sometimes meet confidentially with dissidents or victims of political persecution, and they won’t want to reveal those discussions with Mexican officials, said Medellin.

“The law might be symbolic. But the problem is you never know. Mexican officials might decide someone is bothering them or not convenient to them and start a criminal prosecution against them,” she added. 

But even selective enforcement could create enormous risks for foreign agents and their Mexican sources, said Ximena Medellin, an associate professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico, who has studied the law extensively.

Foreign agents and embassy officials sometimes meet confidentially with dissidents or victims of political persecution, and they won’t want to reveal those discussions with Mexican officials, said Medellin.

“The law might be symbolic. But the problem is you never know. Mexican officials might decide someone is bothering them or not convenient to them and start a criminal prosecution against them,” she added. 

The DEA and other branches of U.S. law enforcement have long worked in Mexico, cultivating sources and collecting information. Useful intelligence is generally passed on to Mexican counterparts, including to trusted military outfits like the Mexican marines or specially vetted units within the Mexican federal police, which carry out the actual arrests and capture operations. This type of bilateral cooperation has led to some high-profile successes, including the capture and extradition of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman, who is now serving a life-sentence in the United States. 

But the relationship between U.S. and Mexican agents has always been tenuous, in part because of widespread corruption in Mexican law enforcement. One former DEA agent with years of experience operating in Mexico described intelligence sharing with Mexican officials as a “double-edged sword.”

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“Things get filtered through the government, it goes through quote unquote “proper channels,” it gets disseminated and you get your answers,” the former agent said. “That's how it gets sold. In practice, what we run into is the more people who touch information, the less control you have over finding leaks.” 

The former DEA agent gave the example of extradition requests submitted by the U.S. State Department to Mexico. Whenever the U.S. wants a suspect sent north across the border to be prosecuted, Mexico requires signed affidavits from witnesses who could be called to testify during a U.S. trial. That information, the agent said, has ended up in the hands of cartel members, putting cooperators and their families at risk.

There have been documented cases where intelligence leaks led to retribution in Mexico. When U.S. agents shared information about the whereabouts of a leader of the Zetas cartel in 2011, dozens of heavily armed gunmen descended on the town of Allende, about an hour’s drive south of the U.S. border, and massacred anyone suspected of tipping off the Americans. 

At least 28 people were killed, though some estimates put the death toll at closer to 300. The Justice Department’s Inspector General identified “several instances” of “lack of accountability and oversight” with DEA intelligence sharing in Mexico. Documents obtained by VICE News in 2018 showed the anti-drug agency took years to address the problems.

There’s precedent for the new law. Since 1992, foreign agents working in Mexico have faced the threat of expulsion or prosecution if they are caught engaging in law enforcement operations that only the Mexican government is authorized to do — like conducting wiretaps.

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Now, foreign law enforcement agents can be expelled or even prosecuted for infractions such as failing to share sensitive information with Mexican officials.

“When Mexican authorities determine a foreign agent fails to comply with the general and specific provisions” of the law, the agent “will be subject to the sanctions applicable under Mexican law,” according to the legislation.    

Now, foreign law enforcement agents can be expelled or even prosecuted for infractions such as failing to share sensitive information with Mexican officials.

“When Mexican authorities determine a foreign agent fails to comply with the general and specific provisions” of the law, the agent “will be subject to the sanctions applicable under Mexican law,” according to the legislation.    

“If they commit crimes they will be subject to the Mexican justice system,” said Congresswoman Rocío Barrera, according to local newspaper Milenio. "Nor would they enjoy any immunity if they enter our country without being accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Relations."

Similarly, Mexican officials who secretly meet with American agents could also face repercussions. 

“If they commit crimes they will be subject to the Mexican justice system,” said Congresswoman Rocío Barrera, according to local newspaper Milenio. "Nor would they enjoy any immunity if they enter our country without being accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Relations."

Similarly, Mexican officials who secretly meet with American agents could also face repercussions. 

The former DEA agent who spent years investigating cases in Mexico said the new law is risky because it could further undermine the trust between U.S. investigators and their Mexican counterparts. The agent said that in years past, the most sensitive information would only be shared with one or two trusted individuals. Any intelligence that gets shared more broadly, he said, is almost guaranteed to make its way back to the cartels.

“When that happens, you have no hope of finding out if you have a corruption problem,” the former agent said. “If it leaks, you can’t trace it back.”