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Arresting General Cienfuegos and the Limits of Bilateralism

The DOJ’s botched arrest of the former Mexican Defense Secretary three years ago showed the limits of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation and the urgent need to modernize the southern border.

Credit: Carlos Tischler

Earlier this month, the Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gave Uncle Sam another symbolic slap to the face. In a solemn public ceremony, AMLO decorated General Salvador Cienfuegos, formerly Mexico’s senior security official, who made headlines three years ago when U.S. authorities arrested him for drug trafficking and money laundering. In decorating the retired army general, AMLO underscored both the political rehabilitation of Cienfuegos as well as the Mexican president’s disdain for gringo-led security cooperation.

Unfortunately, American policymakers appear to have learned little from the high-profile arrest in October 2020 that made U.S. law enforcement look so amateurish. Already retired, General Cienfuegos was detained in Los Angeles after flying in from Mexico with his family for a California vacation. The arrest infuriated AMLO, who bitterly complained that the DEA had carried out the investigation and busted Cienfuegos without coordinating with or even informing Mexican authorities in advance. The U.S. had never before arrested such a senior Mexican army officer, not to mention that Cienfuegos had also served as a cabinet-level defense secretary in the administration of AMLO’s predecessor, President Enrique Peña Nieto.  


Why the U.S. Department of Justice thought Mexico would just roll over and accept the arrest of Cienfuegos remains unclear. Señor “National Sovereignty,” AMLO predictably orchestrated a diplomatic storm of protest, threatening to kick all DEA agents out of his country and curtail all security cooperation with Washington. Attorney General William Barr blinked, agreeing to drop the charges and return the general on the flimsy promise that Mexican authorities would conduct their own investigation and prosecution of Cienfuegos. 

In January 2021, a matter of weeks after the general’s return to Mexico, the case was closed with AMLO rejecting the charges as “politically motivated” while thoroughly scorning Washington. The outgoing Trump administration had little to say, and the incoming Biden team quickly turned the page because, as one Mexican official reportedly explained, “their agenda was immigration, immigration, and immigration.”

It was a bizarre investigation and arrest, demonstrating just how muddled U.S.-Mexican operational law enforcement cooperation has often been. As defense secretary, Cienfuegos had been Peña Nieto’s right-hand man for dealing with the Americans on security. The general had greenlit much of Mexico’s participation in the last chaotic years, 2012–18, of the U.S.-funded “Merida Plan” security collaboration. Over several years, Cienfuegos represented the gold standard of Mexican cooperation with American diplomatic and security organs, receiving high praise from the Department of Defense and the CIA.

Until he did not. Exactly what happened is still unclear. AMLO selectively released to the media some of the DOJ’s casefile that Barr shared with the Mexicans to justify the general’s indictment. The Mexican press reported that the U.S. case against Cienfuegos mainly consisted of thousands of BlackBerry intercepts that tied him to clandestine tip-offs to the H-2 cartel, a lesser-known criminal outfit that operated on the Pacific coast, trafficking drugs into the United States.   

While the DOJ’s prosecution was obviously based on more than just intercepted digital messages, it is hard to imagine someone with the general’s deep experience in intelligence matters ever leaving behind such an obvious trail. Cienfuegos was fully aware of U.S. capabilities to monitor and intercept electronic messaging, even when such communications are camouflaged with aliases, multiple devices, and cut-outs. 


Busy, high-profile cabinet officials, even in Mexico, do not easily slip out at night and freelance drug deals with cartels, and the available public information makes no strong case against the general. Perhaps American investigators fell for a frameup; perhaps rogue elements in the Mexican navy sought to discredit the army’s high-flying senior general. Perhaps Cienfuegos did indeed go over to the dark side and just got sloppy. 

The speculation is endless. Yet much more important is the missing reflection on how this messy case demonstrated the shortsightedness of putting all our security eggs in the very weak basket that is the partnership with our southern neighbor.  Because of different values, complicated history, and disparate institutional capacities, Mexico has never been on the road to becoming a reliable security ally, despite the fervent wishes of past U.S. administrations. Yet she is not destined to be a devious enemy, either. Above all, Mexico is a desperately struggling country with an exposed 2,000-mile land border with the United States.

Obviously, American security cooperation with a leftist Mexican president like Lopez Obrador is practically non-existent. True, hard-nosed American diplomacy can compel obstinate Mexican leaders into forced cooperation, as Trump did over illegal immigration, but that requires using leverage, such as tariffing Mexican exports or curtailing easy cross-border travel. Even pro-American presidents like Vicente Fox or Felipe Calderon are very constricted partners because of limitations inherent in Mexico’s legal institutions and security forces.

While our southern neighbor has become a much wealthier country in past decades, now boasting the 15th largest economy of the world and a G20 membership, the Mexican state has glaringly failed in modernizing its public safety institutions or legal system. Mexico remains a country trapped in a hammerlock of corruption and criminality, despite the politicians launching countless transparency and good-governance initiatives. Just as Washington’s political establishment is incapable of reducing reckless federal spending, Mexico seems irredeemably lost to a destructive critical mass of illicit money, widespread criminal extortion, and weak state institutions that make the country incapable of becoming a dependable security ally. 

The Mexican army and marines have actually performed reasonably well in the field when they engage combat forces of powerful cartels, and, while that is a resource that American policymakers should not lightly dismiss, it is not enough for a deep partnership. The flagship failure is that the Mexican legal system, although staffed with qualified personnel at both the federal and state levels, is incapable of prosecuting criminals or even reliably adjudicating commercial and civil matters. Poor police professionalism, combined with rampant criminal intimidation and bribery, render the system dysfunctional.  

Americans know firsthand how delicate rule of law can be, even as our own political world is penetrated with influence-buying foreign money and targeted corruption; the case against New Jersey’s Senator Robert Menendez, complete with a payoff in gold bars, is a timely reminder. The crucial difference between Mexico and the United States is that our society has not yet descended, thankfully, to the point where physical threats are part of the basic corruption calculus. For American politicians and officials, corruption is still just “plata,” not yet having become the deadly game of “plata o plomo”—silver or lead. 

Mexico has many dirty politicians, but all public figures, even those with real integrity are tainted, fairly or unfairly, with rumors of corruption and ties to organized crime. They all navigate through a political landscape infiltrated by cartel agents and their fellow travelers. While Cienfuegos was a high-ranking military officer, afforded more personal protection than a typical Mexican senior politician, he still operated in this precarious world. 

There is a long and rich history of interchange between the American and Mexican peoples; this cannot overcome the fundamental lack of trust and unfixable operational problems that prevent Washington and Mexico City from building effective government-to-government bilateral security cooperation. Whether Cienfuegos was guilty or unfairly smeared as he maneuvered across a complicated political stage, he represented about the best security leadership that modern Mexico can produce. The American national interest is at stake as we face unprecedented dangers from crime, drugs, migrants, and corruption from south of the border. America needs a new security strategy that recognizes the weaknesses of our partner and the nature of the challenges.  

Washington’s Mexico strategy should not abandon trying to collaborate with that country’s political leadership, but it needs urgently to pivot towards a security policy that makes modernizing and hardening the common land border the highest priority in the bilateral relationship. It is past time to remake the southern border into the central bulwark of the U.S.-Mexican security partnership. A modern, hardened border will dramatically intensify the scrutiny of everything that crosses: freight and travelers. The scrutiny will likely slow down and in some cases reduce cross-border movement, but that is what the national-security interest requires. 

Washington should launch a Manhattan Project–like southern border initiative, reprogramming the needed billions in foreign assistance away from distant continents to modernize American security on the frontera. The agenda should include massive new security infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at all ports of entry, as well as vastly augmented equipment and new manpower for U.S. Border Patrol. The five U.S. consulates just across the border in Mexico, located from Tijuana to Matamoros, should become forward security platforms and not just centers to process visas. 

Above all, modern physical barriers all along the border must be constructed. Although they may be imperfect, physical barriers are essential and will drastically curtail clandestine entry. Built in concert with a strong mobile Border Patrol presence across the 2,000 miles, these barriers would finally seal the long porous frontier. 

If possible, American policymakers should welcome collaboration with Mexico in this modernization project. But, with or without our southern neighbor, this effort must go forward. Critics who charge that a “wall” is symbolically inhumane have no understanding that sophisticated criminal organizations control the Mexican territory that abuts the United States.   

The hard lesson of the Cienfuegos case is there for all to see: An American security strategy built primarily around a flawed U.S.-Mexican operational partnership is dramatically failing the national interest. We need a new, border-centric approach.


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