In Mexico, AMLO Is Shining a Light on the DEA’s Hypocrisy in the War on Drugs

Mexican president AMLO and the Drug Enforcement Administration have been involved in a heated war of words following revelations of covert operations on Mexican soil. At the same time, an extensive web of corruption within the agency is being laid bare.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the daily morning conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, May 18, 2023. (Luis Barron / Eyepix Group / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

At a joint press conference with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on April 14, the Justice Department announced that it was unsealing charges against twenty-eight upper-echelon members of the Sinaloa Cartel, including three sons of the cartel’s former leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “Today, the Justice Department is announcing significant enforcement actions against the largest, most violent, and most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world — run by the Sinaloa Cartel, and fueled by Chinese precursor chemical and pharmaceutical companies,” announced Attorney General Merrick Garland.

For her part, DEA director Anne Milgram painted a lurid picture of a Sinaloa Cartel “more ruthless, more violent, more deadly” under the so-called Chapitos, one whose global fentanyl operation radiates out from Mexico to Asia and Central America, controlling every stage of the production process and performing gratuitous acts of violence on enemies, including electrocutions, waterboarding, and feeding them alive to tigers. Hence, over the course of a year and a half, the agency “proactively” infiltrated the cartel, “obtained unprecedented access to the organization’s highest levels, and followed them across the world.”

“Enough With the Simulations”

On the one hand, Milgram’s grandiloquent, made-for-Netflix exposition was curious, as it very publicly undermined the agency’s own kingpin strategy of attempting to dismantle criminal organizations by picking off top leaders. What was the point of putting so much energy into capturing El Chapo if the Sinaloa Cartel is even more violent and well connected under Los Chapitos? And what is the point of going after them if their successors stand to be even worse? And so on into an infinite future of violence, massive security budgets, and guaranteed profits for arms manufacturers.

But on the other hand, the presentation served three clear purposes. First, it shifted the focus of blame for the fentanyl epidemic onto an easy-to-identify foreign enemy. (As even the conservative Cato Institute has concluded, fentanyl is overwhelmingly smuggled by US citizens and for US citizens.) Second, it conveniently implicated the United States’ on-deck enemy China, identifying it with the macabre excesses of organized crime and gruesome deaths. And third, it sought to justify the agency’s clandestine, eighteen-month incursion into Mexican territory, one conducted in flagrant violation of the nation’s 2020 National Security Law, which significantly curtails the actions of foreign intelligence agencies on Mexican soil.

Not that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was buying any of it. At his morning press conference on the following Monday, he ripped into the operation, calling it “abusive, arrogant meddling that must not be accepted in any way.” He went on:

How are we supposed to blindly trust DEA agents when it’s proven that many of them . . . maintain or maintained links with organized crime? Like what happened with the former head of the DEA in Mexico [Nicholas Palmieri], who it was discovered had relationships with representatives of the drug cartels and suddenly they removed him and no one knew any more about it. Or the case of [former public-security secretary Genaro] García Luna, where they only defined a limited sphere [of action] . . . as if he didn’t have any ties to international agencies, to the government of the United States and the government of Mexico. . . . Enough with the simulations.

Two days later, as if timed to corroborate AMLO’s remarks, the Associated Press (AP) reported that DEA director Milgram was under investigation by a federal watchdog for allegedly awarding millions in no-bid contracts to at least a dozen friends and past associates at “costs far exceeding pay for government officials.”

These were to have included a nearly $400,000 contract for former police officer and New Jersey crony José Cordero, $4.7 million for administrative services to a contractor known as the Clearing — including $257-an-hour billings for a former associate of Milgram’s, Lena Hackett — and $1.4 million paid to the law and lobbying firm WilmerHale for an amply criticized external review of the agency’s disastrous overseas operations that glossed over a series of high-profile corruption scandals. (This was the same firm, closely tied to both the Trump family and the fossil fuel industry, from which emanated the current US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar.)

On April 27, at an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, Milgram refused to answer questions about the no-bid contracts probe. She found plenty of time, however, to lecture the AMLO administration (“We want the Mexicans to work with us and we want them to do more”) as well as to issue a veiled threat (“We will go wherever the evidence and the facts take us.”) Remarkable chutzpah for an official not only under investigation herself, but whose undercover operations rode roughshod over Mexican law.

Team America

The WilmerHale report isn’t the only one to whitewash DEA wrongdoing: coverage in the US press has been spotty, and in Mexican media, virtually nonexistent. This includes the case of former Mexico chief Nicholas Palmieri, transferred and then allowed to resign for his chummy social relationship with Miami lawyer David Macey, who has represented prominent defendants in the drug world such as the Colombian Diego Marín. Although Palmieri left the agency in 2022, the hush-hush affair was only pried out by the AP in January of this year.

Or the case of agent John Costanzo, Jr, accused of providing sensitive information to intermediary and former agent Manny Recio, who in turn was in the employ of — yes — Miami defense lawyers. Or the case of agent Chad Scott, the “white devil” sentenced to thirteen years for “stealing money from suspects, falsifying government records and committing perjury during a federal trial.” Or the case of agent Nathan Koen, sentenced to eleven years for thousands of dollars in bribes from California drug trafficker Francisco González Benítez. Or the case of agent Fernando Gómez, sentenced to four years for helping a drug-trafficking ring avoid detection from law enforcement.

Or the standout case of agent José Irizarry, sentenced to twelve years for running an extensive money-laundering operation that included, he contends, federal agents, prosecutors, informants, and cartel smugglers, all of them part of a

three-continent joyride known as ‘Team America’ that chose cities for money laundering pick-ups mostly for party purposes or to coincide with Real Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops along the way in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with plenty of booze and more than a dozen prostitutes.

And who, according to Irizarry, taught him the tools of the trade? The Contraband King himself, Diego Marín, defended by Nicholas Palmieri’s Miami friend David Macey. Thus does the circle close.

Stronger Medicine

The drug war, according to Irizarry, was “a very fun game we were playing.” But also, and fundamentally, a futile one. “You can’t win an unwinnable war,” he added in an interview. “DEA knows this and the agents know this.” And the end result of the unbalanced coverage in both countries of this drawn-out string of scandals is to perpetuate the impression that drug-related corruption and collusion is only to be found on the Mexican side of the border. A highly convenient one, among others, for a Republican Party and Trump campaign that are already arming literal battle plans against Mexico if reelected.

In the week following the House Appropriations Committee hearing, AMLO returned to the topic of US foreign policy and its intelligence apparatus. At his May 3 press conference, he said:

In the government of the United States, whoever is in power in terms of parties, there are certain policies that have been applied for a long time that are very interventionist. This is nothing new. . . . [Since the time of the Monroe Doctrine], the United States has protected its so-called vital space, which is the Americas. And here on our continent, they were the masters of land and sea. The US army and navy carried out disembarkations, invaded countries, created new countries, associated states, enclaves, installed and removed presidents at their whim, and this old policy, unfortunately, they continue to maintain.

The next day, after referencing the Milgram scandal, he zeroed in on US intelligence agencies in general: “They are not effective, they do not act in adherence to the truth, there is a great deal of dishonesty and corruption. . . . Why don’t they perform an in-depth investigation of the causes [of drug addiction]? You can disappear fentanyl, and then what? Another drug can’t be created? If there is consumption, if there is demand?”

All of this is well and good: a sustained use of the bully pulpit in ways unseen in the Mexican presidency for decades. But it is noteworthy that, in the face of the DEA’s freewheeling operations, AMLO refused to take direct action against the agency, which might entail expelling its agents, blocking further cooperation or, at the very least, filing a diplomatic note of protest (as he did, for example, in the case of the Biden administration’s financing of opposition organizations in Mexico through the US Agency for International Development [USAID] and the National Endowment for Democracy [NED]).

There is the danger, then, that these criticisms will remain in the realm of the purely rhetorical, part of a morning press-conference machinery that has swept AMLO into the top-ten list of streamers across the Hispanic world, a blowing-off of steam that reinforces, rather than challenges, the status-quo.

While changing the debate is a necessary first step, it cannot be an endgame in and of itself. In the face of a long and unyielding history of US interventionism, overt and covert meddling, and the corruption and collusion that has been laid bare in recent years, AMLO — or likely, his successor — may very soon find that stronger medicine is required.