A US federal judge earlier today, 18 November, ceded to a Department of Justice (DoJ) request to drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos (2012-2018), who was arrested in Los Angeles on 15 October. On 17 November, when the request was made public, court documents were released explaining how “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the [US] government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution.” The reasons for the surprise move are the subject of intense speculation locally. Below are our key takeaways:
Cienfuegos should return to Mexico imminently. In theory, the National Prosecutor’s Office (FGR) will investigate Cienfuegos. In practice, there is little doubt that investigations will be strung out and opaque – and will very probably come to nothing.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) appears to have faced concerted lobbying from senior commanders in the armed forces, many of whom bristled at the US action against Cienfuegos (a retired general), which was kept entirely secret from Mexican authorities. AMLO may have convinced the Donald Trump administration that the extent of military displeasure put governability itself under threat – whether it was true or not. More specifically, speculation that AMLO threatened to curtail or even end bilateral military and/or drugs cooperation is plausible, especially in the light of comments yesterday by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, who said that the agreement would allow security cooperation to continue.
This in turn underlines how important the military are to AMLO’s political project. The military remains essential to security policy and to AMLO’s National Guard (GN); it is also involved in developing the Santa Lucia airport and in the roll-out of the state-run Bank of Wellbeing (Banco del Bienestar), which is the main channel for extending AMLO’s cash transfer programs to the rural poor. This partly reflects AMLO’s dislike of the private sector but it could also be a conscious decision to enmesh the military in the Fourth Transformation so that it has a vested interest in the AMLO presidency and afterwards, in political hegemony for the National Regeneration Movement (Morena).
Domestically, any negative impact from being seen to condone corruption and pursue impunity for high-ranking ex-officials is likely to be easily offset by public support for Mexican sovereignty together with the perception that AMLO secured a concession from the country’s powerful neighbor. AMLO will still be able to point to his support for the process against Genaro Garcia Luna, the former public security minister (2006-2012) accused of receiving bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel, as evidence of his resolve to tackle drugs-related corruption. The implications for bilateral relations – both high-level and more granular – could be more complex as US authorities, from senior officials in the next administration all the way down to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials, approach their dealings with Mexico with new wariness.