Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested at the Los Angeles International airport (LAX) on October 15th on drug and money laundering charges. This arrest concerns me on three levels.
The most obvious concern, expressed by many, is that a former Minister of Defense is charged with being in cahoots with a drug cartel. The military has been considered the Mexican security body that was the cleanest. They were the go-to institution, the ones you could trust.
I’ve always questioned this assumption of cleanliness. Think about it. The Mexican military has been eradicating poppies in the same parts of the State of Guerrero for the past 50 years. Either eradication is not a constructive strategy, or there is serious corruption going on. I suspect that both are true. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard too many stories of corruption and human rights violations in the context of Mexican military counterdrug operations to believe that this institution is purer than the driven snow.
Second, if the former defense minister is guilty of drug charges, how untouchable must he have felt to risk traveling to the United States? He would understand better than most the extensive surveillance efforts that are part of U.S. counterdrug operations. So, either he is: not guilty or thought he was untouchable.
Why might a defense minister think that he is untouchable in the United States? My guess would be because of the importance to the U.S. of its relationship with the Mexican military. For decades, the U.S. had little contact with the Mexican military. While the U.S. had military assistance and training programs throughout the hemisphere, it had none with Mexico. That changed under President Ernesto Zedillo, when national interests aligned as he declared drug trafficking to be Mexico’s number one national security concern.
The US/Mexico military relationship is critically important to the United States. I recall a visit to the Northern Command in the years after the establishment of cooperation. The US personnel I interviewed were almost giddy about the collaboration. For them, it was (and I think still is) critically important to have a close relationship with the armed forces of bordering nations. My view at the time was that the relationship itself became an end in itself, and not a means to an end.
I don’t know what happened in the case of Cienfuegos, but if guilty, it is not hard to imagine that he felt he had a special relationship with the United States.
Lastly, why did the Mexican government not seem to know that this arrest was coming? Instead of presenting whatever damning information the U.S. had to the Mexican government and ask them to prosecute, or request extradition, U.S. authorities laid-in-wait for him at LAX. In this case, and a few other recent cases, it seems that that the AMLO administration was not notified that an arrest was coming. One can draw two conclusions. Either the U.S. did not believe that the evidence would be held in confidence, or they did not believe that the government would pursue prosecution.
I suspect that level of trust between our two nations leaves something to be desired. One of the great tensions in the bi-national pursuit of counterdrug operations has always been information sharing. Information sharing requires trust.
My take-aways from the Cienfuegos arrest are this. If he is guilty: 1) we need to get over the idea that the Mexican military is institutionally clean; 2) there is tremendous arrogance in the idea of a special relationship and this can be problematic; and 3) whether he is guilty or not: trust between our countries is on the rocks.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson