Anti-narcotics co-operation between the US and Mexico could be set back three decades if Mexico’s lower house of Congress approves a bill limiting the activities of “foreign agents”, including the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, has warned that the bill — which passed the Senate on December 9 and was expected to be approved by the lower house before it breaks for Christmas on Tuesday — “can only benefit the violent transnational criminal organisations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting”.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, has defended the bill, saying that it affirms Mexican sovereignty. No clear legal framework regulating co-operation with agents of other governments exists, and it is time to “put things in order”, he said.
Some see the legislation as retaliation for the arrest in October of Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired general and former defence minister in Mexico, on drug trafficking charges at the DEA’s request.
Mexico was not tipped off, sparking outrage in the army, which is a key ally of the populist president. Mexico last month secured the general’s release after intense diplomatic pressure in which it reportedly threatened to expel the DEA.
The new rules would require the agency to hand all intelligence gathered in Mexico to the Mexican authorities. Experts said that would devastate joint anti-narcotics efforts.
“If we pass sensitive information, because of endemic corruption it’s going to get leaked to criminal organisations — it’s happened time and time again,” said Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations at the DEA. “This [information sharing] is not going to happen.”
In addition, the DEA’s counterparts in Mexico would have to report the content of every contact, and agents could be stripped of diplomatic immunity if charged with a crime.
“Who’s going to take your call if they have to write a report every time they talk to you?” Mr Vigil said.
“A lot of the information we provide to the Mexican government or Mexican security forces is tactical — for example, a truck coming from Veracruz with a load of cocaine going to Tijuana,” he added. “[Now] they’re not going to take your call — the vast majority of tactical information is going to go into the toilet.”
Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on security at the Brookings Institution, called it a “game-stopper” if passed and a headache that could lead to strained relations with the incoming US administration under Joe Biden, the president-elect.
“I think it will produce real difficulties with the Biden administration,” she added. “The US will interpret this as a hostile relationship which seeks to undermine US-Mexican co-operation on crime.”
The DEA had no immediate comment.
Mr Barr said the US was “troubled” by the bill, and believed it would hinder co-operation. “This would make the citizens of Mexico and the United States less safe,” he said.
Since 2008, Mexico and the US have stepped up security co-operation under the so-called Merida Initiative, under which Washington has supplied military hardware and helped strengthen law enforcement and prosecution.
Mr López Obrador has taken a largely non-confrontational approach to drug cartels under a “hugs not bullets” strategy, even though Mexico is set to see a record number of murders this year.
His credibility came under fire after he went out of his way to greet the mother of jailed Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán this year.
That happened a few months after Mr López Obrador ordered the release of Ovidio Guzmán, one of Mr Guzmán’s sons, whose bungled arrest for extradition to the US triggered a fierce firefight.
Mr López Obrador has said he wants to “reorient the Merida Initiative completely, because it hasn’t worked”. He said he would prefer to spend the money on development instead.
This bill could be the nail in the coffin. “If it goes through, it will really end US-Mexican [security] collaboration as it exists and return it to the freezer of the early 1990s after the fallout from the Kiki Camarena affair,” said Ms Felbab-Brown, referring to the kidnap, torture and murder in 1985 of DEA agent Enrique Camarena by a cartel in Mexico.
Damián Zepeda, a senior figure in the opposition National Action Party, called the bill a “tantrum” over Gen Cienfuegos’s arrest. Many security analysts believe Mexico’s promise to investigate the general after his return from the US is hollow.
Although both countries have a stake in the fight against powerful cartels, Mr Vigil said Mexico had the most to lose from the bill since high-profile captures relied heavily on US intelligence, and “we would try to provide on-the-job training in surveillance and techniques they weren’t well versed in”.
“This is nothing more than Mexico shooting itself in the foot,” he said.