The United States gave Mexico no warning about the imminent arrest of one of its top generals following Attorney General Bill Barr’s failure to provide the Mexican government information on American drug cartels.
The arrest of Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda at LAX in October was the culmination of a secret operation carried out by the U.S. Justice Department and the DEA. The operation was not disclosed to the Mexican government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) before his general’s capture.
In one of his daily morning addresses after the fact, AMLO admitted that the news caught him by surprise – a statement he later retracted in an effort to save face and avoid scrutiny into the lack of any provision in Mexican law, or in bilateral drug war agreements signed with the U.S., to compel their powerful northern neighbor to disclose specific details of ongoing operations.
Such a bold attack on the sovereignty of another nation is not exceptional behavior for the only superpower on the block, which has historically bullied, blackmailed, and murdered leaders around the world. Nevertheless, the unilateral detention of a foreign military official to face a criminal proceeding in a United States court is a watershed moment in the forty years of the so-called “war on drugs”.
From the beginning of the disastrous policy, trying foreign nationals in American courts has been a permanent feature. Extradition has figured prominently in drug war tactics. The U.S. demands it as a condition for all of its partners in the ostensible fight against organized, multi-billion-dollar drug cartels, which since the late ‘90s has been led by U.S. Southern Command.
The issue nearly toppled the Colombian government during the violent clashes of the Pablo Escobar years, as the drug kingpin made extradition the center of his crusade against his state persecutors. The invasion of Panama just a few years earlier signaled Washington’s aggressive intentions to the rest of Latin America when it deployed Navy SEALS and other special forces to capture one of its oldest covert assets in Manuel Noriega.
The case of General Cienfuegos, who was apprehended at an airport without any prior arrangement with the Mexican government, reveals the flagrant contempt America’s federal law enforcement agencies have for the laws of other nations. At the same time, the absence of a formal extradition request on the part of the U.S. could be a clue about the true motivation behind the high-profile arrest, which has AMLO thinking twice about his relationship with the United States surrounding drug war policy.
In a recent interview with Proceso, Mexico’s Secretary of State, Marcelo Ebrard confirmed that a decision has been made to revisit all cooperation agreements with the DEA as a result of the General’s arrest. “Everything will have to change,” Ebrard said and warned that although there would be cooperation, it would be “on different terms.”
Six days after the DEA announced the results of a large, multi-agency operation targeting the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) called Project Python (which netted over 700 arrests and millions in cash, arms, and narcotics) the Mexican government requested information from the U.S. Justice Department about American drug cartels in a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr in March.
Through the official missive, AMLO and his foreign minister asked the DoJ to provide more actionable details regarding American drug cartels. Among those mentioned in the letter to Barr are the Hells Angels, Bandidos, Gangster Disciples, and Calle 18, whose extensive links to Mexican cartels like CJNG demand that any relevant information on these organizations be shared with Mexico.
The request is based on revelations made a month before by Arizona’s DEA Special Agent in Charge (SAC), Polo Ruiz, who admitted in an interview with Proceso cited in the letter, that American drug cartels have established their own territories in the United States, and while they do work with Mexican cartels, operate independently.
The agent’s admission marks the first time an active DEA official has ever recognized the existence of these groups, spurring the Mexican government to bring it up directly in official state-to-state correspondence after the agency published a list of corporations identified in Project Python as money laundering outfits. All the companies named via Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) were Mexican and omitted any mention of American companies.
Barr’s response came about a month later in mid-April. America’s top cop assured AMLO that he had instructed representatives of the DEA in the U.S. Embassy to get together with their Mexican partners and counterparts as soon as the COVID-19 crisis permitted. As for the queries about American companies, Barr extended nothing more than hearsay from DEA agents who claimed to be working on the matter with the Mexican Treasury.
Operation “Godfather,” as the scheme to capture Cienfuegos was called, was executed without the knowledge of any of the multiple Mexican anti-narcotic agencies ostensibly working in concert with the DEA and came months after Barr’s deafening silence on the matter of shared intelligence with Mexico.
The former Mexican Secretary of National Defense is facing three counts of drug trafficking and one count of money laundering in a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, NY. His defense attorney – also Bill Cosby’s attorney – was the lead prosecutor for the largest money laundering case in U.S. history, known as Operation Casablanca, which targeted several Mexican banks and Mexican bank officials in 1998 just before Mexico lifted a ban on foreign banks, which were expelled from the country by President Lopez Portillo more than a decade earlier – a crucial turning point that preceded the exponential growth of drug cartels in Mexico and which I covered at length in part two of my documentary series, “Borderline: The Unhinged Truth About the Drug War.”
The soft invasion
According to J. Jesús Esquivel’s article in Proceso, Mexico has 54 DEA agents operating largely at their own discretion inside Mexican national territory. Douglas Valentine, interviewed by MintPress for this report, suggests there are likely hundreds of additional undercover agents roaming the country.
Valentine unpacked the secret history of federal drug law enforcement in the United States in two recently-published books that trace the involvement of American intelligence agency, military, and federal law enforcement personnel in the facilitation of world-wide drug trafficking operations. His earlier work on the Phoenix Program established Valentine as a leading investigative journalist working to shed light on some of the darkest activities of the U.S government.
On the arrest of General Cienfuegos, Valentine asserts that “it is exactly what it looks like,” meaning that the brazen affront to Mexico’s national sovereignty was a message to its leadership discouraging any further inquiries (like the one made in the letter to Barr) seeking information about American drug cartels in order to identify the real distribution networks and the flow of illicit gains through the American and international banking system, that ultimately make the drug trade possible.
“A Mexican can’t bring drugs into the United States, say 500kg of drugs, and do anything with it,” explains Valentine. “There has to be an infrastructure and people waiting to receive it. Motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels, Bandidos and other groups collectively referred to as the “Dixie Mafia,” mentioned in Mexico’s March request are used as “frontmen” by powerful American organized crime groups, says Valentine. But, points out that the major markets like New York, L.A., and others are controlled by the mob.
“The Hells Angels aren’t going to be able to New York City and distribute it,” says Valentine, and “to have those systems set up, you need the mafia, which has police protection, political protection”. Such are the networks that Bill Barr seems to be protecting by rebuffing Mexico’s request and pulling a mafia Don move on its southern neighbor by hanging its dirty laundry for the world to see.
“The CIA knows from its surveillance of communications and its agents inside the Mexican army who all the top people are,” and they can drag them out into the sunlight anytime they want to preserve the pretense of law enforcement, justify budget increases or send veiled warnings to other heads of states when they are asking too many questions.
The incredible reach of U.S. intelligence and agencies like the DEA, FBI, and ICE, to name just a few, into Mexico’s military and law enforcement establishment is a reality that began to take shape in the 1940s through a burgeoning relationship between Mexican law enforcement and American intelligence. These ties have grown exponentially since Reagan made the war on drugs a matter of national security and opened the door for the Defense Department to get in on the action through bi-lateral drug war treaties, like the Merida Initiative signed by George W. Bush and his then Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón in 2008.
Similar bilateral agreements exist all across Latin America and have given the United States a privileged position within the law enforcement and military operations of many countries throughout the region. Over the course of the war on drugs, American influence over the increased militarization of police in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries have allowed them to shape security policy to a large degree.
The results for Mexico have been catastrophic. Death tolls often surpass those of the wars in the Middle East and around the world. An especially gruesome incident in 2011 expertly covered by Ginger Thompson, exposed the sheer disdain by agencies like the DEA and the FBI for the lives of innocent people, who – in this particular case – were left at the mercy of a notoriously murderous cartel leader after the drug enforcement agency’s dubious handling of sensitive intelligence.
AMLO’s promise to take a different tack on confronting the cartel problem in Mexico by reducing its dependence on state violence might be raising alarm bells in Washington, motivating actions like Operation Godfather to put the fear of god in the leadership of America’s largest trading partner.
A shot in the dark
If AMLO’s desire to reshape the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico is sincere, then we could be looking at a real turning point in U.S.-Mexico relations and a return to an era when Mexico’s political class regarded its ‘distant neighbor’ – to borrow a phrase – with far more suspicion.
By all appearances, Mexico’s president seems to want to help his own people, which is more than generations of Mexicans can say about most former presidents. Compared to mega grifters like ex-president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who stole millions directly from pensioners and set the stage for the re-introduction of foreign global money-laundering outfits like HSBC into the country, AMLO is King Solomon.
The Mexican president has been taking a lot of heat since taking office in 2018 from upper and middle-class sectors over what they consider his radical leftist policies. Large demonstrations have been taking place in Mexico City over the last several weeks calling for his resignation. But, the majority of Mexicans, who are not part of these economic brackets, support his presidency and appreciate his populist rhetoric.
At the very least, AMLO has stated unequivocally that the Mexican government has no plans to foot the bill for General Cienfuegos’ legal fees, which could hover between $800 and $1,000 per billable hour according to reports. The suggestion that Mexico should tap the federal budget to pay for the General’s high-priced defense team came from the opposition party (PRI) leader, who put forward a proposal to protect the Mexican armed forces from foreign law enforcement agencies.
The nature of such legislation might well be at the core of the issue surrounding the unilateral detention of a military general and goes to the heart of the transnational justice system, which the U.S. has been informally implementing through its drug war policies and which poses a fatal threat to the sovereignty and self-determination of any independent nation in Latin America and beyond.
It’s no secret that high-ranking members of the Mexican military have been vital cogs in drug trafficking operations carried out on Mexican soil. It is the only entity in the country with the capacity to move the narcotics “clandestinely from ports of entry in Mexico up to the American border,” according to Valentine. Cartel leaders often answer to one or another official at some level of the Mexican federal government, ranging from a hotshot federal police chief to the president of the Mexican republic itself.
The corruption of Mexico’s institutions is legendary among its own people, who rarely give politicians – or anyone in a position of authority – the benefit of the doubt. Contempt of power is a cultural idiosyncrasy and no one who intends to hold any kind of office or rank in Mexico is above reproach in a country where impunity rules the day.
In the United States, however, the vast network of military, law enforcement, and intelligence operatives crawling all over the dark underbelly of the global drug trade are exempt from scrutiny. Their principal roles in the movement of illicit drugs all over the world runs contrary to the carefully-crafted do-gooder narratives churned out by Hollywood since the collapse of the American socio-political consciousness.
The corruption and impunity in America hides behind its own legal code and is jealously guarded behind a rhetorical veneer of exceptionalism that the Church committee, Vietnam, and the string of political assassinations had all but shattered in the 1960s. More recently, the seminal work of journalist Gary Webb exposed the nexus between the global drug trade and the American establishment, which has rebounded in remarkable fashion to conceal the extent of the corruption and impunity, once again.
William Barr, himself, was one of the very people directly involved in sweeping the sordid past and atrocious activities of programs like MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, and Iran-Contra under the rug. As U.S. Attorney General, he continues to do the same when uncomfortable questions arise about the role that American drug traffickers, corporations, and banks are really playing in the ostensible fight against drugs.
Feature photo | Then-Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, right, and Undersecretary Noe Sandoval Alcazar, left, gesture directions to soldiers marching past, during a review of the troops that will participate in the Independence Day parade, in Mexico City, Sept. 14, 2016. Rebecca Blackwell | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.