WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

16 Oct 2020 | Press Release

Arrest of Top Mexico Defense Official Highlights Urgent Need to Fight Corruption

Washington, D.C.—On the night of Thursday, October 15, U.S. authorities arrested former Mexican Secretary of Defense General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda at the request of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Cienfuegos led Mexico’s Army and Air Force (SEDENA) from 2012-2018 under the presidential administration of Enrique Peña Nieto.

The arrest comes as Mexico’s President Andres Manuel López Obrador has begun granting SEDENA further control over the military-heavy national guard, and control of its ports to the navy.

WOLA’s Vice President for Programs and Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer issued the following statement in response to the arrest:

“Charges against Cienfuegos include aiding a cartel in drug trafficking and in the arrest and torture of rivals, underscoring the urgency for the Mexican government to address deep corruption in Mexico, and the problematic militarization of public security forces in the country. The López Obrador administration has consistently dragged its feet in supporting several anti-corruption bodies, including sufficient funding for the prosecutors charged with investigating corruption-related crimes. In the context of a record level of homicides in the country, the López Obrador administration has also pushed for an unprecedented expansion of the armed forces’ involvement in public security tasks that should be civilian-led. To date, the militarization of public security has failed to address Mexico’s security crisis while resulting in a dramatic increase in human rights violations committed by Mexican soldiers including cases of torture, forced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions.

“Cienfuegos’ arrest points to the fact that Mexico will not be able to effectively address the drug trade and organized crime until it creates criminal justice institutions capable of investigating and prosecuting crimes free from political influence. Rather than focusing on drug interdictions and providing equipment, the U.S. government should deepen its cooperation with Mexico to strengthen the rule of law.”

Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson issued the following statement on the arrest and the implications it has for U.S. aid to the region:

“The Mexican army is notoriously secretive, resistant to accountability, and has a record of unpunished corruption and human rights abuse. Despite these warning signs, U.S. administrations have consistently sought to tighten relationships with the Mexican Department of Defense. Cienfuegos’s arrest shows the importance of strengthening and fully implementing human rights protection requirements in U.S. foreign aid. These requirements, like conditions on aid, prevent the U.S. government from potentially contributing to abuses, while limiting exposure when we do not have a complete understanding of the work of our ‘allies’.”