Commentary: US complicity in Mexican crimes: Who were Cienfuegos' allies and accessories in American government?

Mexico’s former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, was arrested on Thursday in Los Angeles and will arrive soon in New York to face conspiracy, organized crime and money laundering charges at the same courthouse which has already convicted Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman and where former Mexican police chief Genaro Garcia Luna also stands trial.

The symbolism is powerful. The DEA, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American judiciary apparently have embarked on a fearless crusade against the most vicious international drug traffickers and their powerful accomplices in the Mexican government. “It made me very proud to be an American,” announced Judge Brian Cogan after the conviction of Guzman to life in prison.

But the real story is much more complex, and reflects much more murkily on the U.S. government. Both Garcia Luna and Cienfuegos worked closely with American law enforcement agencies while Washington coddled the Mexican presidents under which they served: Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) and Enrique Pena Nieto (2012-2018). If these top Mexican officials are as corrupt as they appear to be, then their U.S. counterparts should also be investigated for complicity with their crimes.

Cienfuegos supposedly has been under investigation for over a decade, but in June 2017, the five-star general held a high profile meeting with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo and then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in which they even supervised together the destruction of a poppy field. In 2018, Cienfuegos received the prestigious William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education from the United States Department of Defense.

During the Obama administration, Washington worked closely with Garcia Luna on numerous missions, including the scandalous Operation Fast and Furious, which between 2009 and 2011 involved the illegal purchase and exportation to Mexico of almost 2,000 firearms worth $1.5 million. The former FBI chief in Mexico City during the Calderon administration, Raul Roldan, was until recently a member of the board of Garcia Luna’s private security company, GLAC Consulting.

In 2008, Obama and Calderon signed the Merida Initiative, establishing close collaboration between the two governments. The initiative “open(ed) a chapter of historic cooperation and acknowledge(ed) the shared responsibilities of the United States and Mexico to counter drug-fueled violence threatening citizens on both sides of the border,” according to official documents. It provided a framework for intensive information sharing and for billions of dollars of funding for the purchase of military equipment and supposedly “strengthening public institutions” south of the border.

Both the Trump and Obama administrations have promoted vast arms sales to the Mexican government: More than $3 billion have been appropriated by Congress under the Merida Initiative, still in effect today, and legal U.S. firearm and ammunition exports to Mexico today roughly total about $40 million a year, according to U.S. Census Bureau trade records. Although there have been critiques of the Mexican government´s human rights record, not once has either U.S. administration suggested suspending arms sales due to corruption in Mexican law enforcement.

The United States government has also turned a blind eye to the multimillion-dollar illegal weapons market which has heavily armed the drug cartels south of the border. Tens of thousands of weapons cross the border annually and 70% of the guns confiscated in Mexico can be traced to U.S. manufacturers, according to independent studies.

International banks are also complicit with the drug trade. Money laundering is a lucrative business, and financial institutions often fail to control the flow of dirty cash. In 2017, HSBC had to pay a $1.9 billion fine for failing to prevent Mexican drug cartels from laundering hundreds of millions of dollars. Wachovia Bank, now part of Wells Fargo, was fined $110 million for failing to prevent the laundering of $378 billion (billion with a b, not a typo) through currency exchange houses.

Regardless of who is elected the next president, the United States should own up to its responsibility in the carnage and corruption in our backyard. The DEA and the Department of Justice should be just as brave and bold about their investigations of U.S. individuals and government officials as they have been with their Mexican counterparts.

Such steps would be welcomed and supported by the new Mexican government led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was elected in 2018 on a solid anti-graft platform. The Mexican people were aware of the profound corruption of the Calderon and Pena Nieto administrations long before the Justice Department started to act.

For the first time in decades, the top officials in the Mexican government are true allies of accountability and good governance on both sides of the border. Will the U.S. government rise to the occasion?



Ackerman is director of the Program on Democracy, Justice and Society of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), editor-in-chief of The Mexican Law Review and a columnist at La Jornada newspaper.


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