Cienfuegos’ Return Is a U-Turn for the US

For Mexico, the sudden U-turn in the Cienfuegos case indicates the enormous possibilities or “new realities” of the strategic strength of security and intelligence agencies in the United States. The U.S. government’s order to drop charges against the former Minister of Defense so that he could return to his country and face trial by its justice system is a victory for Mexican diplomacy over U.S. diplomacy. However, it sets a serious precedent by demonstrating the power of those agendas over cooperation in fighting crime. A harsh test for Mexican justice also remains — the obligation to investigate the crimes of drug trafficking conspiracy and money laundering, which the general stands accused of by a New York federal prosecutor.

The diplomatic crisis does not appear to end with his release. The case opens questions that strike at the U.S. justice system and point to possible overreach by security agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, in relation to U.S. foreign policy interests. The inconsistencies in the process — from his unilateral detention to the agreement to hand him over to Mexico, which is not public — are a reversal for the U.S. that is justified neither by various threats from Mexico to reduce cooperation in anti-narcotics operations, nor by the fear that Cienfuegos would single out American officials. Senate Democrats warn that the decision by U.S. Attorney General William Barr “risks undermining that faith in the U.S. justice system and encouraging impunity at the highest levels in Mexico.” How and why did the DEA prosecution get so far? Where was the united front that Barr now wields to justify a political agreement?

Evidently, the DEA and the Department of Justice mistreated the general with his arrest by failing to follow norms dictated by diplomacy and by the cooperation between both countries as members of the Northern Command. Military sources even relate that he was shackled at the ankles like a dangerous criminal in Los Angeles when he was arrested at the airport while traveling with his family last Oct. 15. There are no photographs, but the grievance increased with a judge’s decision to deny bail due to concerns over flight risk.

The risk was lower a month later, when something either shifted or became disrupted entirely. From the beginning, the former drug czar under the Clinton administration, General Barry McCaffrey, characterized Cienfuegos’ detention in an interview with Leon Krauze as a “provocation” by people who were “incompetent, impulsive and acting outside of the law” in the U.S.* Now, dropping charges in order to return Cienfuegos to Mexico is a recognition of that poor decision to indict him with dubious evidence and of the risks to security cooperation posed by conflicts between U.S. agencies. Is this possibly retaliation for the release of Ovidio Guzman? Or a budgetary maneuver?

Lopez Obrador succeeded in avoiding a major blow to the prestige of the Armed Forces and a delicate situation for sovereignty, especially given the clear unrest of his government’s top allies. But the lack of boundaries imposed on U.S. action leaves a bad message. In the defense plea demanding Cienfuegos’ release, diplomacy won a battle in which the military’s ability to argue for their anti-narcotics collaboration was felt. In a comment reflecting his push for limits to be imposed on the U.S. as a matter of national security, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard summarized the dilemma this creates for Mexican foreign policy, “You cannot have close cooperation … and at the same time do this.”

The war against drugs and corruption forms part of a complex Washington agenda towards Mexico, but the Cienfuegos case must serve to assess subsequent facts in various ways. First, unilateral actions in security matters play against the interests of both countries, as demonstrated by the fact that the DEA operation has been placed on the negotiating table. The second is the challenge faced by the Mexican justice system, which must demonstrate the ability to investigate corruption at the highest levels and within military leadership. There remains much to be written about this story, particularly regarding how the new Biden administration will approach this diplomatic crisis.

*Translator’s Note: Not able to locate this interview in English.

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