Mexico weighs bill that threatens narcotics partnership with the United States

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Anti-narcotics cooperation between the United States and Mexico could be delayed by three decades if the Mexican lower house of Congress approves a bill limiting the activities of “foreign agents”, including the United States Drug Enforcement Administration .

William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States, has warned that the bill – which was passed by the Senate on December 9 and was due to be approved by the lower house before its Christmas break on Tuesday – “can only benefit violent transnational criminal organizations and the other criminals we are fighting jointly”.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, defended the bill, saying it asserts Mexican sovereignty. There is no clear legal framework governing cooperation with agents of other governments and it is time to “get things in order”, he said.

Some see the legislation as retaliation for the October arrest of Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired general and former defense minister in Mexico, accused of drug trafficking at the behest of the DEA.

Mexico was not warned, sparking outrage in the military, which is a key ally of the populist president. Mexico secured the general’s release last month after intense diplomatic pressure in which he allegedly threatened to deport the DEA.

The new rules would require the agency to turn over all information gathered in Mexico to Mexican authorities. Experts said it would devastate joint anti-narcotics efforts.

“If we pass on sensitive information, due to rampant corruption, it is going to be leaked to criminal organizations – it happens time and time again,” said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations at the DEA. “This [information sharing] is not going to happen. “

Additionally, DEA counterparts in Mexico are expected to report on the contents of each contact, and agents could be deprived of diplomatic immunity if charged with a felony.

“Who will take your call if he has to write a report every time he talks to you?” Said Mr. Vigil.

“Much 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 bound for Tijuana,” he added. . “[Now] they won’t take your call – the vast majority of tactical information will go to the bathroom. “

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security expert at the Brookings Institution, called it a ‘game-stop’ if adopted and a headache that could lead to strained relations with the new US administration under Joe Biden , the elected president.

“I think this will create real difficulties with the Biden administration,” she added. “The United States will interpret this as a hostile relationship that seeks to undermine US-Mexico cooperation on crime.”

The DEA made no immediate comment.

Mr Barr said the United States was “troubled” by the bill and believed it would hamper cooperation. “It would make Mexican and American citizens less secure,” he said.

Since 2008, Mexico and the United States have stepped up their security cooperation under the so-called Merida Initiative, in which Washington has provided military materiel and helped strengthen law enforcement. and prosecution.

Mr. López Obrador has taken a largely non-confrontational approach to drug cartels “Hugs not balls” strategy, even though Mexico is expected to experience a record number of murders this year.

His credibility has come under fire after doing everything possible to greet this year the mother of jailed Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

This happened a few months after Mr. López Obrador ordered release of Ovidio Guzmán, one of Mr. Guzmán’s sons, whose failed arrest for extradition to the United States sparked a violent shooting.

Mr. López Obrador said he wanted “to completely reorient the Mérida Initiative, because it did not work”. He said he would rather spend the money on development.

This bill could be the nail in the coffin. “If it passes, it will really end the United States and Mexico [security] collaboration as it exists and bring it back to the freezer of the early 1990s after the fallout from the Kiki Camarena case, ”said Felbab-Brown, referring to the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena by a cartel in Mexico.

Damián Zepeda, a senior official with the opposition National Action Party, called the bill a “tantrum” following the arrest of General Cienfuegos. Many security analysts believe Mexico’s promise to investigate the general after his return from the United States is in vain.

Although both countries have an interest in fighting powerful cartels, Vigil said Mexico had the most to lose with the bill since the high-level captures relied heavily on US intelligence, and “we would try to provide on-the-job training. surveillance and techniques which they did not master well ”.

“It is nothing more than Mexico shooting itself in the foot,” he said.

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