Incoming president Joe Biden is facing many issues when he is sworn in on January 20. Among the issues is a challenging relationship with México. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, colloquially known as AMLO has two years left as president of México. Biden not only faces the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic problems, but the relationship with México, will be challenging as well. México is America’s second largest trading partner, after Canada and this will factor in the economic recovery Biden needs.
However, the economic crisis in both countries is not the only issue in the geopolitics between México and the U.S. The other, as always, is the so-called drug war. México has been sensitive to its sovereignty especially when it comes to cooperation with the U.S. government. Included within this context is AMLO’s politics. AMLO’s election was based on ending the drug violence in México and taming governmental corruption. Covid-19 stymied AMLO’s plans and forced him to deal with the resulting economic crisis while keeping the Trump administration at bay.
To keep the Mexican economy viable, AMLO needed to keep workers working during the pandemic even at the risk of employee health and to keep Trump from further threatening México’s economy because of immigration issues. To deal with the Trump administration, AMLO redeployed his newly created national guard away from drug violence and used them to stem migrant migrations towards the United States via México.
In doing so, the national guard dropped its primary purpose of dealing with the drug violence forcing AMLO to keep the Mexican military primarily dealing with the drug violence. Not only did the redeployment violate AMLO’s promise to put the army back in the barracks but it also left the drug violence a problem.
Regardless, the U.S.-México relationship remained largely in status quo.
Then Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested.
The Cienfuegos Debacle
Cienfuegos is México’s former national defense secretary (2012-2018). The arrest of the general, damaged the U.S.-México relationship.
On August 14, 2019, Cienfuegos was indicted on four drug-related charges. Cienfuegos was accused of helping the previously unknown H-2 drug cartel.
In an October 16, 2020 detention memorandum, the U.S. prosecutors revealed that prosecutors had intercepted Blackberry messages linking Cienfuegos to the H2 cartel. The court ordered Cienfuegos detained while he awaited trial.
The following month, the charges against Cienfuegos were dropped and he was released and returned to México.
In a U.S. government memorandum dated November 16, 2020, the U.S. prosecutors asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Salvador Cienfuegos. The reason provided by the prosecutors in the memorandum was that the U.S. government “has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of” Cienfuegos.
In other words, U.S.-México geopolitical issues outweighed prosecuting Cienfuegos on drug charges. The prosecutors’ memorandum argued that dismissing the charges in the U.S. would allow the Mexican government to investigate the general and potentially charge him with crimes in México.
To date, no known criminal charges have been filed against Salvador Cienfuegos in México.
Although Cienfuegos was released by the U.S. government and returned to México the U.S.-México relationship had been damaged. In December, the Mexican congress adopted into law a requirement that U.S. agents – DEA, FBI and others – no longer have access to diplomatic immunity while operating in México. In addition to losing diplomatic immunity, foreign agents operating in México are now required to share any intelligence they have with Mexican officials and are prohibited from arresting anyone in México. Additionally, foreign agents must have the Mexican government’s authorization to be armed.
AMLO publicly chastised the Trump administration for not informing the Mexican government on the investigation of Cienfuegos prior to his arrest. In response, AMLO submitted the legislation to the Mexican congress arguing that México’s sovereignty must be respected.
Although the new Mexican law includes all foreign operatives in México there is little doubt that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was the target.
AMLO also notably was one of the last foreign leaders to officially recognize Joe Biden’s election waiting until after the Electoral College had ratified the votes for Biden.
For Joe Biden, México is a problem he wasn’t planning on. The restrictions imposed on DEA agents by the new law poses a dilemma for Biden and the ongoing drug war. Any attempts to deal with the border wall, immigration and drug interdiction efforts must now consider the DEA’s position on its operations within México.
AMLO, for his part, is facing the continued economic chaos of the pandemic and rising drug violence.
For both México and the United States, the economic situation makes both countries dependent on working together. AMLO has two years left to implement the many promises he made. The economic situation has made them difficult and likely untenable. AMLO cannot run for reelection but his party, Morena’s, future rests on AMLO’s ability to deliver.
For Biden, the next two years will likely be about the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy. Mixed in there are the upcoming mid-term elections in two years. Not too mention the expected Donald Trump interference in the Biden presidency.
As such, both AMLO and Biden are unlikely to accomplish much in the next two years as both will be focused on their own political fortunes.
And, as usual, immigration reform for Mexicans will again be put on the backburner.