On January 14, Mexico announced that it would not be pursuing charges against retired general and former secretary of defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. The announcement capped a vertiginous three months in which Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles in October of 2020 on charges of drug trafficking, only to be released and returned to Mexico a month later in order for the investigation to be continued there. In a pointed communiqué, the attorney general’s office announced that it had found nothing in the documentation provided by the US Justice Department to support the claim that Cienfuegos had ever been in contact with the “criminal organization investigated by American authorities” or had helped protect any of its members.
Faced with criticism from across the political spectrum, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) vigorously defended the decision at his daily press conference the following morning. “We maintain that impunity must end, as well as corruption, but also that there cannot be reprisals or revenge, and that crimes cannot be invented,” he said, before drawing attention to the various questions hanging over the case. “Why was [the arrest made] on the eve of the election? What was the message? From whom? What was the plan? To debilitate the Mexican government? To debilitate the armed forces of Mexico? To provoke a conflict with the current government?” Then, moving his chess pieces as best he could, the president made a surprise decision: the full file of evidence provided by the United States would be made public so that the people could decide for themselves.
Is That All There Is?
The released file was indeed revealing, but likely not in the way the DEA had intended. It consists of 751 pages of BlackBerry screenshots and message transcripts purportedly shared between Cienfuegos and Daniel Isaac Silva Gárate, a drug trafficker known by the nickname “H9,” and between Silva Gárate and his boss, Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, the then-leader, known as “H2,” of a cell of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel. The problem, as even the most fervent critics of the current government have been forced to admit, is that the supposed evidence is full of holes.
Not only do the physical descriptions made by H9 of El Padrino, or The Godfather, not line up with Cienfuegos (blond, light-skinned, heavyset) — neither does the information provided about his family. On two days that Silva Gárate was to have met with Cienfuegos in Mexico City, the general was able to prove that he had been in Acapulco and Hermosillo. The messages attributed to Cienfuegos are riddled, implausibly, with grade-school syntax and spelling errors. Furthermore, the idea that he would have so brazenly used his maternal last name (Zepeda) in his correspondence with H9 stretches credulity.
Even if all of the above were to check out, the fact that the information was acquired by means of a foreign wiretap acquired not for Cienfuegos but for the two cartel members would make it inadmissible in a Mexican court.
Interestingly, in his cover letter accompanying the file, the then-acting administrator of the DEA, Timothy Shea, appears to try to distance himself from the whole thing. According to Shea, Cienfuegos was “never a direct investigative target” of the agency, which “did not target any [Government of Mexico] officials directly, conducted no surveillance or investigative activity against Cienfuegos-Zepeda inside Mexico, and took no action to influence Cienfuegos-Zepeda’s travel to the United States that led to his arrest.” Such an account is a far cry from how the matter was reported at the time of the arrest as part of a “multi-year sting operation” called “Operation Padrino,” born out of the investigation into El Chapo Guzmán.
Cienfuegos may very well be guilty of drug trafficking; indeed, there is reason to believe that he was at it well before his time as secretary of defense under former president Enrique Peña Nieto. But the fact that the sum total of a multiyear investigation was a bunch of inconclusive BlackBerry screenshots raises some important questions. Is the DEA sitting on something else? Shea’s letter carefully refers to “several cooperating witnesses” that could provide details about the cartel’s activities — but not, apparently, about Cienfuegos. As for H2 and H9, they are both dead. And if the agency only decided to share the short end of its evidence with Mexico, what kind of game is it playing? In practice, it would mean protecting a known criminal, a more perverse twist on a long history of looking the other way throughout the general’s career.
Alternatively, the Justice Department could have decided to simply dump the matter on Mexico, a possibility anticipated by a December piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that officials on both sides of the border were well aware of the circumstantial nature of the case. This would have the advantage of allowing the United States to wash its hands of the matter, avoid the risk of an embarrassing acquittal, and let AMLO take the hit for releasing him.
In this, it could count, as always, on a credulous media more than willing to lap up anything fed to it by the national security apparatus, a liberal establishment that raised the intelligence “community” to dizzying heights of fetishism during the Russiagate years, and an ironclad stereotype of Mexico as a breeding ground of drug dealers in dark sunglasses. Given the choice of, on the one hand, questioning the motives and competence of the DEA together with a justice system willing to indict on so little, or, on the other, believing that Cienfuegos is a narco who was let off scot-free by a corrupt south-of-the-border regime, the unyielding reflex of the United States will always be the latter.
The Army Is Not Your Friend
DEA intrigue or ineptitude aside, there is nothing stopping AMLO’s administration from investigating Cienfuegos on its own — something it has so far declined to do.
It is worth noting that that no official investigation of the general was underway in Mexico at the time of his Los Angeles arrest. In its communiqué announcing its decision to not press charges, moreover, the attorney general’s office noted that a review of the general’s financial records showed no signs of illicit enrichment; this, despite his sharp rise in wealth during his time as defense secretary, including a portfolio of real estate, expensive automobiles, and a million-dollar bank account.
Since coming to power in December of 2018, AMLO has placed all of his chips on Mexico’s military in a bid to guarantee the stability of his government. In addition to showering it with contracts and largesse and providing constitutional cover for its civilian-policing activities, he has consistently extolled the armed forces for its historical roots in the Mexican Revolution.
There is a certain logic to this: surveying the desperate state of the nation, with police forces and governmental bureaucracies compromised by endemic corruption and infiltration by organized crime, the incoming president made a lesser-evil decision to lean on the institution that, despite manifold and very public abuses, continues to receive high marks from the public. Once the military genie had been released from the bottle — beginning with Felipe Calderón’s fateful decision to send it to the state of Michoacán in December of 2006, ten days after assuming the presidency — it was always going to be exceedingly difficult to put it back in again.
But what the Cienfuegos affair demonstrates are the limits of creating a transformative project on the back of the armed forces. Despite rhetorical attempts to give it a revolutionary backstory, the Mexican army is a hierarchical, conservative, and self-interested organization. It is armed, powerful, dangerous, and the recipient of a steadily growing slice of the federal pie. And when it feels threatened — as when a retired member of its top brass is under the gun — it will flex its muscle accordingly.
And if the institutional checks against its power are weak, popular counterweights are even more so. AMLO’s approval rating remains high, but his supporters have been largely disengaged from the machinery of his presidency. In marked contrast to his time as opposition leader, when he made ample use of the streets and public plazas to drive his political agenda, the president has so far governed according to an institutional strategy based on his congressional majority: even before the COVID crisis put a brake on large public meetings, the only mass mobilization he had called for (aside for a pair of occasions to commemorate the anniversaries of his victory and inauguration) was in response to the Trump administration’s decision to apply tariffs on Mexican exports in 2019.
The political party he founded, MORENA, is riven with infighting, opposition entryism, and a lack of internal democracy, whereby the preferences of party bigwigs have almost uniformly prevailed. Unions, for their part, are weakened by long decades of subservience to the once-hegemonic PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) and an ongoing tradition of dictatorial lifetime leaders. In effect, the only tangible way most of the president’s supporters have to express their support for the movement is in the day-to-day trench warfare of social media.
And while a combination of presidential strategy and pandemic isolation has left most of his supporters in a sort of demobilized limbo, AMLO has gone out of his way to castigate others who have been actively organizing. In much of the center and south of Mexico, where the nation’s natural resources and indigenous populations are concentrated, expressions of left politics have historically taken the form of opposition to developmental megaprojects that exploit local communities and foul the environment. A tragic roster of activists have lost their lives in this fight. But in the face of opposition to a thermal power station to be built in the town of Cuautla, Morelos, for example, a project that AMLO himself once opposed — he notoriously decried protestors as “radicals of the left who are no more than conservatives.” He has used the same rhetoric to tar opposition to the Mayan Train in the Yucatan Peninsula. Ironically, many of these populations are the same ones that have borne the brunt of military abuses and impunity.
The president’s desire to invest in the nation’s historically neglected south is a genuine one, as is his push for Mexico to develop an autonomy in energy production that would break a crippling dependence on imports from the United States. And the debate about how best to go about these goals while respecting cultural, linguistic, and ecological rights — not to mention fighting climate change — is a necessary one. But in line with presidential scoldings, MORENA as a party has had little to say in response to these manifestations of activist energy except for a variant on the centuries-old “Why don’t you accept progress?”
The Clock Is Ticking
AMLO was swept to power on the promise to break up the complicit network of power structures that kept the country in its sway for so long. In the absence of mobilized popular support, however, the success of such a project is threatened. And if this necessary work is allowed to remain truncated, the “mafia” that governed the nation before 2018 will simply reconstitute itself under a future administration, reverse the president’s reforms, and, with a still more powerful military at its disposal, find it all the easier to repress any popular discontent arising from its efforts to turn back the clock.
One way for the AMLO administration to reassert its resolve in this area would be to reopen the investigation against Salvador Cienfuegos. The general’s exoneration with respect to US charges does not exonerate him from his crimes committed in Mexico, including his complicity in the Tlatlaya massacre and the cover-up of the disappearance of the teaching students of Ayotzinapa, both in 2014. AMLO had promised that there would be zero impunity with regard to these and other historical open wounds. As he nears the halfway point of his term as president, the clock is ticking.