A central disadvantage of cooperation stalling between the U.S. and Mexico is that while each side is engaged in broadcasting its own message, the criminal activities they want to weaken and preclude in fact succeed due to efficient communication among offenders on both sides of the border.
The arrest of Mexico’s former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles earlier this month has driven the U.S. and Mexico further apart on security matters. Yesterday, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard announced during the daily presidential press conference they had formally notified the U.S. government, Mexico’s displeasure for not sharing information related to the arrest of General Cienfuegos.
Just the day before, at an event at the Baker Institute, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Chris Landau, revealed that he knew about General Cienfuegos’ indictment on the day of his arrival to Mexico in 2019. The information Ambassador Landau received, in and of itself, is not the problem. However, when the foundation of U.S.-Mexico regional security is purportedly the principle of shared responsibility, these unilateral actions and parallel monologues are unfortunately reminiscent of some of the most fruitless periods between both countries.
Still, in the same way transnational security cannot depend on the kingpin strategy, the rift around General Cienfuegos cannot be the sticking point between partners. In his conversation at the Baker Institute, Ambassador Landau also offered potential avenues that both countries could explore including areas the Mexican government has touted as priorities.
For instance, he discussed the challenges around distrust: Mexico unaware of the information the U.S. has, while the U.S. is unsure of who the information can be shared with. As former Ambassador to Mexico Early Anthony Wayne has proposed, Cienfuegos’ case “should spark the governments to adopt improved oversight mechanisms to vet officials”. Vetting mechanisms, that both countries must comply with, in fact align with the anti-corruption agenda President Andrés Manuel López Obrador heavily campaigned for on his way to Palacio Nacional. For those concerned that vetting is only another way for Mexico to appease its neighbor, they forget that robust vetting mechanisms primarily serve Mexico’s interests of having government employees who work for public rather than private interests.
At the event at Baker Institute, Ambassador Landau also called into question the efficacy of the kingpin strategy as a stand-alone policy and suggested U.S. agencies to have more creative approaches including additional metrics for measuring success. The arrests of characters like drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán and Cienfuegos will not stop violence in Mexico nor decrease the demand for drugs in the U.S. If nothing else, the discovery of 59 bodies in clandestine graves in the state of Guanajuato yesterday should underscore how our narratives of violence lag behind reality on the ground. This includes the wishful thinking that the arrest of one individual is the silver bullet for stopping transnational criminal operations and the false victory that the bad apple has been removed.
2020 is on track to becoming one of the deadliest for Mexico and the U.S. considering Covid-19 deaths, homicides, and deaths from drug overdoses. If we truly believe regional security should be the end goal, then this is hardly the time for solo performances.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc