In mid-November the US Justice Department dropped previously filed drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, paving the way for his return to Mexico. My first thought upon reading this was, “So this is where AMLO chooses to push back against the U.S.?”
There is no question that the Trump Administration has repeatedly bullied Mexico and that Mexico has implemented policies that got Trump off its back. But this latest role reversal, with Mexico apparently demanding that Cienfuegos be returned is both unusual and jarring.
There is a lot to unpack here and reasons for concern by the citizens of both our countries:
- Just a few weeks ago US prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to indict and arrest the former Defense Minister. That should be a matter of concern to both countries. If Cienfuegos is guilty, then we were running our counterdrug efforts with an institution whose leader was in cahoots with the traffickers. This should outrage us all because of how many lives have been lost in both countries to the drug war and to drug consumption.
- How is it possible that Cienfuegos’s case was important enough for US prosecutors to avoid extradition and go straight to detaining the General as he passed through a US airport one month, and then unimportant enough to drop the charges the next. Clearly, pressure was exerted on the US justice system. It is reported that none other than US Attorney General Barr made the decision to drop the charges. This is not how the U.S. justice system is supposed to work.
- What does it mean for “justice” with respect to the specific charges brought against Cienfuegos? When the case was dropped in US, it was done in such a way that Mexico “may” pursue charges against the General. In US legal documents, you always have to watch out for the word “may.” They may. They may not. It is yet to be seen if the Mexican government will attempt to prosecute Cienfuegos.
- Why did AMLO decide that the US bullying should stop here? The Mexican president described the General’s arrest as a violation of sovereignty. So, returning a General accused of drug offenses is where Mexico draws the line on national sovereignty? It wasn’t on trade; it wasn’t on the wall; it wasn’t on water; and it certainly wasn’t to help Central American migrants. It was to protect the reputation of the Mexican military.
- All of the above points to the power of the military in Mexico and the United States. The prosecution of an accused drug trafficker became a matter of the highest level of national interest. The institution of the Mexican military was not going to be undermined by the United States. And, as I mentioned in a previous column about the arrest of Cienfuegos, the US/Mexico military-to-military relationship is both relatively new and extremely important to the US military. The relationship itself is something that the US worked hard to establish and does not want undermined.
Where one chooses to pick battles says a lot about their priorities. AMLO picked drug charges against a General as his line in the sand, and the Trump Administration sent the General home in what looks like an effort to prioritize the bilateral military relationship.
The citizens of both countries have something to worry about when it comes to civil/military relations.
* 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