MEXICO CITY—President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ruling party pushed through a new law Tuesday curbing the role of foreign law-enforcement officers in Mexico, a move the U.S. believes will cripple bilateral efforts to battle powerful drug cartels.
The legislation, which passed by a vote of 329 to 98 in the lower house, follows the October arrest in the U.S. of Mexico’s former defense minister on drug trafficking and corruption charges. The shocking detention of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos prompted Mr. López Obrador to question the role of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, portraying it as a rogue agency running roughshod over Mexican sovereignty.
The curbs to the operations of foreign agents, aimed at DEA and other U.S. law-enforcement agents, are a blow to the U.S. Department of Justice, former agents and security analysts said.
Last month, Attorney General William Barr dropped charges against Gen. Cienfuegos and handed him back to Mexico, saying the general’s detention would stifle bilateral security cooperation. On Friday, before the bill became law, Mr. Barr said in unusually blunt language that the U.S. was worried the law would imperil future security cooperation between the two countries.
“We are troubled by legislation currently before the Mexican Congress, which would have the effect of making the citizens of Mexico and the United States less safe,” said Mr. Barr, who is leaving his post before the end of the month. The law “can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting,” he said.
The legislation orders Mexico’s local, state and federal officials to report to the federal government every telephone call, meeting or communication with a foreign agent within three days of its occurrence. Foreign agents must report to the government any information they dig up and provide monthly reports of their activities.
“It puts too many conditions on the actions of foreign agents,” said Jorge Chabat, an expert on international relations at the University of Guadalajara.
Meetings by Mexican officials with foreign agents must have prior authorization from a group of senior Mexican officials charged with regulating contacts. A representative from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry must be present at any such meeting. Failure to comply with the new rules could lead to administrative or criminal sanctions, the law says.
“There cannot be foreign agents in Mexico arresting people or committing crimes,” said Dolores Padierna, a lawmaker from the ruling Morena party. “They shouldn’t meet with state or municipal authorities behind the back of the federal government, deciding who is a reliable authority or with whom they share information.”
The new law is likely to make U.S. agencies reluctant to share information with Mexican institutions they consider to be corrupt, and Mexican officials won’t meet with their U.S. counterparts because of the requirement they disclose the meetings, said Mike Vigil, a former DEA director of international operations. “The policy will stifle bilateral cooperation,” he added.
A senior Mexican government official said Gen. Cienfuegos’s arrest had a huge impact on the country’s security establishment. “There was a clamor to have clear rules, and respect for Mexico,” he said. “The arrest was seen as an insult to Mexico. The government was blindsided.”
Mexico is working with the U.S. to ease concerns that sensitive information provided by the U.S. would be jeopardized. “We have the possibility of reaching agreements so that cooperation is not compromised,” the official added.
The U.S. has 50 DEA agents posted in Mexico, according to Mexican officials. Security experts and former officials say those agents have provided the bulk of intelligence for a string of high-profile arrests and captures of leading narcotics traffickers, including legendary trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who twice escaped from a maximum-security Mexican jail before being arrested with the help of the DEA, extradited to the U.S. and sentenced.
“About 70% of drug kingpins and politicians linked to drug cartels who have been arrested was thanks to information provided by the DEA,” said Marta Tagle, a congresswoman from the opposition Citizen Movement. She mentioned the arrests of Mr. Guzmán and several governors of states along the U.S.-Mexico border who were on the payroll of the hyper-violent Zeta cartel.
“Many of them didn’t even have a Mexican arrest warrant or were under investigation in Mexico. Their arrests were possible because of bilateral extradition agreements with the U.S.,” Congresswoman Tagle added.
The law comes at a time when Mexico is faring poorly in corralling powerful cartels. Drug-fueled violence is expected to set another record this year, following last year’s record rates of homicide. And a string of drug-related corruption scandals has highlighted the scale of the challenge.
The former head of the country’s federal police who led the country’s war on drugs from 2006 to 2012 was arrested by U.S. agents on drug-trafficking charges in 2019, followed by warrants for several of his top aides.
In the case of Gen. Cienfuegos, prosecutors said the case included several other high-ranking army officers.
Latin America’s troubled history with the DEA spans more than five decades. The late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez expelled the DEA from Venezuela in 2005. Three years later, Bolivian President Evo Morales kicked out DEA agents along with the U.S. ambassador.
“It fits a broader pattern of populist presidents in Latin America asserting sovereignty,” said John Polga-Hecimovich, a Latin American expert at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Mr. Polga-Hecimovich said the law is likely to get the relationship between President-elect Joe Biden and Mr. Lopez Obrador off to a rocky start. “It’s a signal that Lopez Obrador wants to take a hard line with Biden,” he added.
It won’t be the first time that relations between the two countries have been upended by efforts of U.S. law-enforcement agents to curtail the drug trade and contain the power of the country’s drug lords.
In 1985, DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped and tortured to death by local traffickers. Angered by Mr. Camarena’s disappearance, the U.S. virtually closed down the border with Mexico.
Drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero was convicted of taking part in the murder of Mr. Camarena and sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2013, a state judge freed Mr. Caro Quintero, arguing he hadn’t been tried properly. The federal government tried to reimprison the drug lord, but he remains at large. The U.S. government has offered a $20 million reward for his capture, the highest on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted list.
Many Mexicans see the country’s violent drug capos as heroes. Their exploits are subjects of popular ballads called “corridos” as well as television series. In vast parts of the country, Mexico’s drug cartels are in a public relations blitz for the hearts and minds of poor Mexicans, providing them with food and supplies as they struggle to survive the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“In Mexico, many people wrap themselves in the flag and claim sovereignty, but Mexico’s sovereignty is more threatened by organized crime than by the U.S.,” says Eduardo Guerrero, a leading Mexican security analyst.
“Those who harm sovereignty are drug lords who intervene in electoral processes at the local level, kill candidates and exercise territorial control. Such control and violence distort the entire democratic process of the country,” he added. “That affects national sovereignty.”
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