Arrest of former defense secretary rattles US-Mexico security ties

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The arrest of a former Mexican defense secretary in Los Angeles on Thursday rattled the U.S.-Mexico security relationship, after decades of slow progress in building trust.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested on a warrant from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) shortly after arriving at Los Angeles International airport accompanied by members of his family, who were released shortly after.

Cienfuegos, who was secretary of Defense for Mexico between 2012 and 2018, was indicted by the Eastern District of New York on four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering, according to documents revealed Friday.

The arrest surprised military officials and observers on both sides of the border, as it’s unusual for a member of the Mexican military of such high rank to be prosecuted, and Cienfuegos had played a key role in building a closer relationship between the Pentagon and the defense secretariat, known as SEDENA.

Still, the Mexican Army’s nearly 15-year mission at the front lines of the drug war has exposed the institution — consistently the most trusted institution by Mexican citizens — to the corrupting influence of drug trafficking.

“I don’t know why they’re so surprised. It’s not like SEDENA has been a model of transparency or accountability,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America, a think tank focused on human rights in the Americas.

“He himself was so hermetic you didn’t have a real sense of where he stood. But he certainly wasn’t challenging the flux of the institution, and there were plenty of warning signs about the institution,” added Isacson.


Mexico’s military is essentially divided among two cabinet-level posts, SEDENA and SEMAR, the Secretariat of the Navy.

Historically the Navy has been more open to collaboration with the United States, and its marine infantry has proven an effective quick reaction force shuttled to hot spots throughout the country during the drug war.

But SEDENA’s regional command structure has proven a double edged sword, functioning as designed to provide a counterbalance to the corrupting influence of cartels on state and local governments, but also fostering the deep local roots that open the institution to that same corrupting influence.

SEDENA’s deeply entrenched culture of nationalism and loyalty to the institution has made it a tough nut to crack for Pentagon officials, who have a vested interest in maintaining close ties with military forces across the Americas.

“The Pentagon’s mandate is to maintain really close military-to-military relations with all governments around the region so other countries don’t have that kind of influence,” said Isacson. “Especially in the case of Mexico.”

Bilaterally, the Cienfuegos arrest could hinder the Pentagon’s larger strategic goal of wooing SEDENA, but is unlikely to significantly alter security cooperation, particularly on drug trafficking, in part because of the roles played by other Mexican security institutions.

“What’s the future of this continued dance of trying to establish a relationship with SEDENA, which has always been a really reluctant dance partner? It’s just gone through ups and downs and it looks like it’s headed for another down,” said Isacson.

In many ways, Cienfuegos personified a three-decades long effort to get SEDENA to let its guard down vis-a-vis the Pentagon, which Mexican military doctrine considers its primary external threat.

In 2018, Cienfuegos was awarded the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education by the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, a Department of Defense school dedicated to regional military diplomacy.

And in June 2017, Cienfuegos led then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo and then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on a tour of poppy plantations in the southern state of Guerrero.

According to the indictment revealed Friday, Cienfuegos’s alleged illicit activities took place between December 2015 and February 2017, shortly before he received Pompeo and Kelly.

Cienfuegos, who served under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, left his post shortly after the William J. Perry award ceremony at the end of Peña Nieto’s term in office.

As is customary, incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador picked his defense secretary from a reduced group of generals who’ve achieved a certain rank. He chose Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, an officer with an outsider reputation within that group.

López Obrador on Friday at his daily press conference went out of his way to praise SEDENA as an institution and to deposit trust in Sandoval. 

López Obrador said he learned of the indictment at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau informed Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard that Cienfuegos had been detained.

“I always said it was not just a crisis, but a decadence, what was happening. A process of progressive degradation, and we are now seeing the depth of this decomposition,” said López Obrador.

López Obrador blamed Peña Nieto and his predecessor former president Felipe Calderón — his favorite political targets — for the decay.

Calderón’s top civilian security official, former Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, was arrested and indicted by a New York court in October, facing similar charges.

The arrests could prove politically beneficial to López Obrador ahead of the 2021 midterms. 

Tags John Kelly Mike Pompeo

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