The spectacular arrest of former defence minister Salvador Cienfuegos at Los Angeles airport has questioned two bets Andrés Manuel López Obrador made when he became president in 2018: to rely on the military at home and to foster close relations with the U.S.
The allegations against Cienfuegos, who has not been investigated in Mexico, are as sensational as any narco drama. The retired general, 72, is accused of having exchanged thousands of unencrypted BlackBerry Messenger communications with the H-2 drug cartel, raising questions over how Mexico could have remained oblivious to such huge U.S. phone tapping.
Almost two years to the day of his arrest on October 15, Cienfuegos was a friend of Washington: the U.S. decorated him with the Legion of Merit, one of its most prestigious military awards, for his “extraordinary contributions” to bilateral ties as minister from 2012-2018.
But Washington chose not to tip off Mexico that it would detain the ex-general on charges of being a drug trafficker and money launderer. Cienfuegos, nicknamed the Godfather, was arrested at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration with no courtesy call to Mexico City. He is planning to fight the charges “energetically,” his lawyer, Duane Lyons, has said.
“This is a very clear message that the U.S. right now doesn’t necessarily have confidence in the current Mexican government when it comes to the bilateral security agenda,” said a former senior Mexican government official. “We might have imagined we had a relationship with the U.S. that we don’t.”
The breakdown in communications is a blow to López Obrador’s foreign policy focus to keep President Donald Trump happy, analysts say. He has bent over backwards to preserve relations with Mexico’s top trading partner, even in the face of threats from Trump. He mobilized his National Guard to contain migration to placate Trump and yielded to some of his trade demands to clinch the new NAFTA, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
The Los Angeles arrest shows the feeling is not necessarily mutual. As one former top Mexican military official put it: “(If) you don’t trust, you stop talking.”
He added: “The relationship between Mexican security forces and U.S. defence, security and law enforcement will freeze for a long, long time.”
López Obrador’s other major bet has been on the military, making them what Catalina Pérez Correa, a security specialist at Mexico’s CIDE university, called “the pillar of his government.”
Hours before the arrest, Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former intelligence official, published a document revealing that the National Guard had been placed under formal defence ministry control.
But Pérez Correa noted that the president has also roped the military into tasks as diverse as building an airport and branches of a state bank, controlling ports, growing trees for a government reforestation program and distributing school textbooks.
López Obrador hails the military as honest — he calls its top brass “incorruptible” — and an essential ally in rooting out corruption.
That assessment is now being challenged, questioning the president’s anti-graft strategy. “The whole leadership of the army are Cienfuegos’ disciples. He promoted all of them,” the former military official said. “If you’re going to send all corrupt officials in the armed forces to jail, you’re going to need more prisons.”
The military now feels humiliated and angry, Hope said. “AMLO is now trapped between the U.S. and the army, and that’s not a good position,” he said, using the president’s nickname.
“He’s bet his presidency on the army and that has been shaken. He has also bet his presidency on not antagonizing the U.S. and now the U.S. has delivered a slap in the face.”
Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister, said: “This is the most difficult problem of López Obrador’s administration because there’s no good way out.”
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