How Mexico stymied America’s war on drugs

Mexican president’s ‘hugs, not bullets’ pledge has increased tensions with US drug enforcement agency

Soon after Mexico’s president took office in 2018, agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration knew their job was about to become a lot more difficult.

The anti-drug agency had painstakingly built allies among selected military leaders and vetted police units, overcoming distrust among Mexican officials. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged a less confrontational approach to organised crime dubbed “hugs, not bullets”, criticising the US-backed “war on drugs” as deadly and ineffective.

Just as they feared, as López Obrador’s six-year term nears an end much of Mexico’s co-operation with the agency has vanished, said former agents and security experts.

Mexico-DEA relations reached a low point just as overdoses of fentanyl – much of it produced in Mexico – have become the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45, and as the crime groups that distribute drugs extended their territorial control.


“It’s one of the most challenging issues in the bilateral relationship,” said Christopher Landau, who was US ambassador to Mexico from 2019 to 2021. “And the one ... [crying] out the loudest for a reset, which has been very difficult to accomplish.”

Relations between the US and Mexico, which are each other’s largest trading partner, are publicly cordial, and both governments say broader security co-operation is good. But major issues including the flow of drugs northwards and guns moving south remain.

López Obrador’s gentler security policy aimed to cut murder rates that had spiked after unsuccessful attempts to confront the cartels. In a much-criticised moment, in 2020 he was filmed shaking the hand of the mother of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a former drug boss now imprisoned in the US.

But the president’s hands-off approach jars with the US agency’s mission. Recent reports showed the DEA examined whether the president’s 2006 and 2018 campaigns took drug cartel money, a claim he vehemently denies. The reports in ProPublica and the New York Times said one inquiry was shut down in 2011, while a second did not develop into a formal investigation.

López Obrador has argued the DEA is fighting back because he reined in its excessive power, often citing its role in a botched US operation which allowed guns to be trafficked to Mexico that were later found at dozens of crime scenes.

“They [the DEA] used to come into the country and do whatever they wanted. So that doesn’t happen any more and that made them angry,” he said.

Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, said: “This government ... reacts [to the DEA] with more emphasis on sovereignty – and that creates clashes.

“[López Obrador] is always looking for people to get into the ring. The DEA got in the ring, and now they’re fighting.”

Former DEA agents said they saw warning signs from the first months of López Obrador’s term. Drug lab raids fell, the president vowed to replace a decade-old security agreement with the US, and he disbanded the federal police force, within which the DEA had built a vetted Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU).

“We knew it was going to get really bad,” said one former agent in Mexico. “It was painful how openly it was that they gave you the middle finger.”

López Obrador has relied on the army, which already had a distant relationship with the DEA, to execute many of his policies, from building trains and airports to running customs.

When US authorities arrested Mexico’s former defence minister general Salvador Cienfuegos on drug trafficking charges in 2020, the Mexican government reacted furiously, latter accusing the DEA of making up charges against him in “revenge”.

Then-president Donald Trump agreed to hand Cienfuegos back to Mexico, where authorities swiftly let him go and dropped the charges. But the damage was done.

Mexican lawmakers scrambled to restrict foreign law enforcement operations, while visa processes for DEA agents were paused. Eventually the SIU was shut down and a DEA plane based outside the capital lost its permit to fly. At the same time, fentanyl seizures at the US border shot up.

“It was absolutely the worst it’s been in decades,” one former agent said, describing a “complete pullback” on sharing information.

Another agent said Mexico used the Cienfuegos case as a pretext to relegate the DEA’s role, in what they see as a country riddled with corruption and reluctant to tackle organised crime.

Mexican security experts see the problem differently. They say the DEA’s focus on arresting and extraditing top drug traffickers and making seizures was an outdated approach that just fed violence in Mexico.

The DEA has also had its own internal corruption scandals, including a convicted agent who conspired to launder money for a Colombian cartel and others convicted for bribery.

“Mexico’s interests are not the United States’ interests on this topic,” said Carlos Pérez Ricart, an author of a book on the DEA in Mexico. “They can be successful at confiscating things, but they never take responsibility for the blood that’s left behind.”

Mexico’s foreign ministry said it would not respond to anonymous accusations by former US agents with “personal agendas”, but it added recent close co-operation has led to the extradition of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, and a 500 per cent increase in gun trafficking investigations.

The US embassy in Mexico and DEA did not respond to requests for comment. The embassy in December said the countries were working together as partners “like never before” and that extraditions from Mexico to the US in 2023 were the highest in a decade.

Organised crime groups employ tens of thousands of people in Mexico, with extortion, oil theft and migrant smuggling also major business lines. A growing number of Mexicans consume recreational drugs, but the top voter concern is the violence driven by conflict between the fragmented groups.

The US and Mexico will both hold presidential elections this year. In Washington, lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with what they see as their neighbour’s failure to stop criminal groups. Several Republicans have supported proposals to designate drug cartels as terrorist organisations, or even conduct direct US military intervention against the groups.

“There’s a lot of ill will in Washington,” Landau, the former ambassador said, adding that he would advocate for greater control of transport infrastructure such as ports, rather than arrests. “I don’t blame the DEA ... I blame the US government writ large for letting the DEA ... basically define the entire relationship.”

Security co-operation between Mexico and the US, which share a 2,000-mile border, involves a web of agencies.

The DEA was always seen as using the most aggressive tactics via a network of paid informants to pursue arrests and seizures. But some experts said the US could compensate for the damaged DEA relationship via the CIA, armed forces, state department and others.

Mike Vigil, who served in the DEA for more than 30 years until 2004, said the relationship with Mexico’s government was still “miserable”, but he believes the DEA has a role to play in battling the drugs trade.

Vigil hoped for a fresh agreement “so that we can get back to working together, sharing information and hopefully attacking these cartels because now they are ultra-powerful”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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