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19 Jan 2021 | Commentary

Explainer: Key Points for Understanding Mexico’s Cienfuegos Case

With Mexican authorities announcing that they will not charge former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, and with the U.S. Department of Justice stating that it fully stands behind its investigation into Cienfuegos’ alleged ties with organized crime, the U.S.-Mexico security relationship may be severely weakened. After Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) released a largely redacted version of its investigation exonerating Cienfuegos (following Mexico’s release of 751 pages of information sent by U.S. authorities), there are new reasons to doubt the FGR’s ability and willingness to conduct a thorough, independent investigation into high-level military officials.

To understand this sequence of events, it is necessary to contextualize Mexico’s handling of the case within broader trends of expanding military power and impunity in the country. Here is a recap of the case, points providing context on key Mexican institutions, and preliminary takeaways for what lies ahead.

Salvador Cienfuegos

  • General Salvador Cienfuegos was Mexico’s defense minister from 2012-2018 during the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). During this period, the Mexican military continued to be deployed throughout the country to carry out policing tasks, despite widespread concerns that this strategy (which continues today) disincentivizes broader police reform and places the military in a role for which it is unsuited and lacks proper oversight.
  • Cienfuegos’ tenure was marked by widespread, serious human rights violations by the military (as had also occurred prior to his tenure). Cienfuegos was known for denying wrongdoing by soldiers in cases like the execution of civilians in Tlatlaya and for refusing the GIEI (a group of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) access to interview soldiers in the Ayotzinapa case.

The Cienfuegos case: October 2020-January 2021

  • On October 15, 2020, U.S. officials arrested General Cienfuegos on charges of collusion with organized crime stemming from a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation. Reportedly under pressure from the military, current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government (of the MORENA party) worked arduously to prevent Cienfuegos from standing trial in the United States: in an unprecedented process, Mexico sought Cienfuegos’ return by threatening to restrict the DEA’s operation in Mexico if the U.S. did not change course. The López Obrador administration has maintained that U.S. authorities acted inappropriately and should have informed Mexico of the investigation beforehand.
  • In this context, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sought dismissal of the U.S. charges, leading to Cienfuegos’ release to Mexico in November. Given Mexico’s ongoing history of impunity for military crimes (especially when those implicated are of high rank), analysts predicted that this move would eliminate the possibility of a credible investigation.
  • Despite Cienfuegos’ return to Mexico, López Obrador still proposed a reform to the National Security Law to codify and create strict reporting and operational requirements for foreign agents in Mexico. The reform was approved in December. While its subsequent implementing rules scaled back the content of several reporting requirements, the rules require reporting when foreign governments suspect any Mexican security official of crimes. The reform and rules also establish a system of authorization and presence of the federal government in meetings between foreign agents and state-level officials.
  • On January 14, 2021, the FGR announced that it would bring no charges against Cienfuegos. Over the following days, Mexico publicly released hundreds of pages of evidence that the DEA had sent to the Mexican government, as well as a highly redacted public version of the FGR’s casefile on the matter. The casefile, although not fully legible, appears to show that foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard communicated to the FGR López Obrador’s interest in the FGR investigating not only the accusations transmitted by the DEA, but also whether U.S. authorities had acted inappropriately in the case.
  • Barring unexpected content in the redacted portions, the FGR file does not appear to reflect an exhaustive investigation. The FGR’s arguments for closing the case largely echo arguments presented by Cienfuegos; the FGR showed the casefile to Cienfuegos and received his statement on January 9, announcing five days later that it had decided to close the case.
  • López Obrador subsequently expressed his public support for the FGR’s decision and accused the DEA of fabricating the accusations.
  • These actions prompted the DOJ to express its deep disappointment, stating that it reserves the right to recommence its own prosecution. The DOJ also stated that Mexico had violated the U.S.-Mexico Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance (MLAT) by releasing confidential information, which “calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.” The foregoing is concerning given that information held by U.S. authorities may be important to help resolve cases of serious human rights violations in Mexico, such as the Ayotzinapa case.

The growing power and expanding role of the Mexican military under López Obrador

  • López Obrador (who came into office in December 2018) has replaced Mexico’s civilian Federal Police with a new National Guard that, despite being civilian on paper, operates as part of the armed forces: it has a military structure, the majority of its members are military troops, its commander is a military general, and in 2020 it was revealed that the Guard officially operates under the army’s coordination.
  • López Obrador’s security policy also includes the continued, direct deployment of the armed forces (army and navy) in public security tasks: in May 2020, López Obrador published an agreement assigning a wide range of policing tasks to the military until 2024.
  • The increased militarization of public security has been accompanied by growing military roles and influence in a broad range of government activities: López Obrador has assigned the army construction projects throughout the country, the delivery of social aid programs, and several other civilian roles. Growing military displacement of civilian institutions reflects and increases the military’s overall power in governance.

Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR)

  • Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR) is the new face of the former Attorney General’s Office (PGR). The change in name stems from legal reforms meant to transform the ineffective PGR into an autonomous, effective institution, but such a transformation has been lacking in practice. The National Prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, is a close ally of López Obrador whose autonomy has been questioned since the beginning of his term.
  • Ongoing concerns over the FGR’s record have prompted a coalition of civil society groups to call for transformative changes in the institution’s practices. In light of recent events, hundreds of organizations, victims’ collectives, and individuals in Mexico have even called for Gertz to be replaced.

A few takeaways

  • Mexico’s premature closure of the Cienfuegos case is highly concerning when understood in the context of the significant power and impunity of the military, as well as in light of the ongoing failure of the FGR to establish itself as a credible, autonomous body. Independently of whether or not the U.S. accusations against Cienfuegos would ultimately have been found to have merit, allegations of this magnitude required the FGR to demonstrate clearly its will and ability to carry out a thorough, independent investigation.
  • Cienfuegos’ exoneration; Mexico’s accusations of fabricated charges; public questions regarding the extent and correct interpretation of the evidence gathered by the DEA; the publication of DEA evidence by the Mexican government; and the new rules governing foreign agents in Mexico are all factors that severely strain the U.S.-Mexico security relationship. This should be an opportunity for both countries to reevaluate bilateral cooperation, recognizing that a militarized combat, “kingpin” arrest strategy will continue to fail given prevailing levels of impunity, which stem in turn from factors like corruption and weak institutional will and capacity. Cooperation should center on reducing violence through institution-building, fighting corruption, and protecting human rights.