Mexico's President Wants to Rein In U.S. Drug Agents Operating on His Turf

A new proposal could drastically alter cooperation between the two countries on drugs and security.
December 8, 2020, 5:29pm
A Mexican soldier stands guard next to packages of marijuana found at a warehouse in Tijuana, Mexico
A Mexican soldier stands guard next to packages of marijuana found at a warehouse in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. David Maung, Bloomberg via Getty Images

MEXICO CITY - Anti-drug operations between Mexico and the United States are getting awkward. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador just released a 10-point summary of a proposal that seeks to rein in “foreign agents” operating on Mexican soil.

While it’s not directly mentioned, most believe the plan refers to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

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The new proposal suggests numerous changes that - if implemented and enforced - would drastically alter bilateral cooperation on drugs and crime between the two countries. 

The plan would require that foreign agents turn over any information they collect to Mexican authorities and that Mexican officials submit full reports about any contact with foreign agents to federal authorities. It also suggests removing the varying levels of diplomatic immunity held by foreign agents operating within Mexico’s borders.

López Obrador has been openly critical of the DEA after the October arrest of former top Mexican military official General Salvador Cienfuegos by U.S. authorities.

Although the U.S. issued an indictment against Cienfuegos that detailed his involvement with organized crime and drug trafficking during his tenure as Mexico’s top military figure between 2012-2018, the Mexican government exerted political pressure to have the charges dropped and the general sent back to Mexico. 

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A source within Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also confirmed reports that the Mexican government submitted an extradition request for another former top security official currently on trial in the U.S. - Genaro García Luna - although refused to comment on if they expected extradition before or after a trial and sentencing.

Gilberto González, a former DEA agent who worked numerous undercover operations in Mexico, called the manoeuvers “political posturing.”

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“[López Obrador] has gotta show that he's got teeth, that he just doesn't bark, that he can bite,” said González. “That you're in his country with the Mexican government’s permission and authority. If [the U.S.] starts taking down [Mexico’s] generals and major players on the law enforcement side, it's not going to enhance the cooperation between the agencies.”

The DEA and other branches of U.S. law enforcement have long worked in Mexico, cultivating sources and collecting information, which would then be passed on to Mexican authorities who would lead the actual operations. This type of bilateral cooperation has led to the arrests of high-profile kingpins, for example, that of Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman in 2014.

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González explained that although U.S. agents passed on information, they’d never share details about how they obtained it or their sources due to endemic corruption within Mexican law enforcement. But the new proposal would require that level of cooperation.

In his opinion, U.S. authorities should have anticipated the consequences of arresting a major figure like Cienfuegos.

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“I would have said to [the higher-ups], before we do this, let's draw a very simple chart with advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages would be repercussions against agents working in Mexico, that are still running operations, and compare whether it’s worth the takedown or not.”

The proposal is set to be considered by the Mexican Senate’s Public Security and National Defense Committee, but is not a done deal.

“I think it’s pretty redundant, it has less teeth than what it appears,” said Alejandro Hope, a former agent in Mexico’s Center for Investigation and National Security, currently known as the National Intelligence Centre (CNI) since 2019. Hope explained that since 1992, foreign agents working in Mexico were already under threat of expulsion or losing diplomatic immunity and facing prosecution if caught administrating law enforcement operations beyond information gathering, “but it hasn’t happened.”

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The proposal was mostly “for show” and if it were to pass, it would only make the work of U.S. intelligence agencies “much more clandestine than they would necessarily have to be, but they would still work here,” said Hope. 

“Unless Mexico was determined to invest in counterintelligence measures, and effectively use counterintelligence measures, I don’t think it’s realistic that Mexico could prevent U.S. intelligence agencies from working without a high level of freedom in Mexican territory.”

If the government was serious about having CNI or the military focused on monitoring and limiting U.S. intelligence in Mexico, “it would be quite a significant investment in personnel, technology. I don’t know how much but it wouldn’t be cheap,” said the former agent.

On Tuesday, December 8, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard pushed back on the widely-held notion that the proposal was a direct shot at the DEA, stating it applied “to all agents, not only from the DEA or from United States [agencies] - it’s not made for one country, it’s made for all foreign agents in Mexico.”