MEXICO CITY—Following the stunning arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister on drug charges in the U.S., Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is backing away from a cleanup of the Mexican army and has shifted some blame to U.S. officials.
On Oct. 17, two days after the detention of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, the president began to question the role within Mexico of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency that requested the arrest of the former defense minister as he and his family landed in Los Angeles. Mr. López Obrador blamed previous Mexican presidents for allowing the DEA “to do whatever they wanted,” and said the U.S. agency should investigate itself for its working ties to high-ranking Mexican officials later accused of corruption.
He also defended the Mexican armed forces broadly, saying that even if Gen. Cienfuegos were proved guilty, “that doesn’t involve the entire Defense Ministry.” On Tuesday, Mr. López Obrador also expressed confidence in the current defense minister.
The U.S. indictment alleges Gen. Cienfuegos, nicknamed “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather,” used his position as defense minister to protect a drug cartel’s shipments. The general helped the cartel expand territorial control, got the military to initiate actions against rival gangs and introduced cartel leaders to other military and political leaders willing to accept bribes, according to the indictment.
Mr. López Obrador wouldn’t be the first president to avoid holding the army to account. For at least the past 80 years, Mexico’s civilian leaders have given the military independence from oversight in exchange for staying out of politics. The formula worked well for Mexico while the region was engulfed in social turmoil and military coups.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that even if the former defense minister were proved guilty, “that doesn’t involve the entire Defense Ministry.”
Mexico’s military is a black box, and has enjoyed complete impunity on matters of human-rights violations as well as corruption, said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, which has often denounced cases of torture and extrajudicial killings by military officers.
The army didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mr. López Obrador said Tuesday that because of the sensitive nature of the case, only he would comment on Gen. Cienfuegos’s detention.
Mr. López Obrador’s comments were a departure from what he said immediately following the arrest, when he promptly vowed to go after any other officials involved in the case, saying they would be “suspended, retired, and if it’s the case, brought to justice.”
The nationalist president changed his tone because the army is arguably Mexico’s most important institution, and one the president can ill afford to alienate, analysts say.
Mexico’s army does everything from fighting drug kingpins to protecting the country from hurricanes and earthquakes. But its role has grown under Mr. López Obrador, a leftist populist, who has turned to the armed forces to do everything from public works to rounding up migrants.
The armed forces are currently building Mexico City’s new $3.2 billion airport, the country’s biggest infrastructure project, almost 3,000 bank branches of a state-run bank key to his anti-poverty programs, planting millions of trees to fight soil erosion and removing rotting seaweed from the country’s tourist beaches.
Responding to pressure from President Trump, thousands of National Guardsmen—a new, Mexican military-led force—block illegal Central American migrants from entering the U.S. The military was recently tasked with running the country’s ports and customs. In short, the military is Mr. López Obrador’s go-to agency.
Gen. Cienfuegos’s arrest has thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on the military and exposed one serious flaw: lack of accountability and no civilian oversight. Mexico is one of the remaining holdouts in the Americas to have never had a civilian defense minister, along with countries like Guatemala.
“There has to be more civilian control of the army if we want Mexico to be a viable democracy,” said Sergio Aguayo, a renowned political analyst and security expert. “Since the U.S. trial against Gen. Cienfuegos will be on the agenda for several years, it is an idea that will gain steam.”
Members of Mexico’s National Guard blocked migrants near the border with Guatemala in January.
But there are practical national security reasons the nationalist president needs to avoid alienating the army, analysts say.
“Mexico relies on the military because of the training they have, something that state police and federal law enforcement agencies don’t have,” said Alejandro Schtultmann, head of Mexico City risk consulting firm Empra. “With Mr. López Obrador’s dismantling of the Federal Police, now you only have the military.”
The president is also unlikely to demand an overhaul of the armed forces or greater transparency because of his disdain of civil society, his drive to centralize power, and his nostalgia for an old-fashioned, inward looking Mexico, analysts say.
The arrest of Mr. Cienfuegos on U.S. soil has awakened nationalist anti-American passions in the armed forces, according to former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, which he believes could stymie cooperation with the U.S. on security issues.
“This is a hard blow to Mexico’s image and for its armed forces,” wrote one active duty general to Mr. Castañeda in a WhatsApp message, according to Mr. Castañeda. “Cienfuegos is innocent. This is a totally abusive and arbitrary action by the U.S. I consider it an insult to Mexico.”
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The army’s high command is split between generals who believe the Cienfuegos arrest is an American plot, and those who believe Gen. Cienfuegos is a traitor who betrayed the institution, said Raúl Benítez, a military expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
There is a strong chance that Mexico’s army, one of the most hermetic military institutions in the hemisphere, will now become even more insular, notes Craig Deare, a professor at the Washington D.C.-based National Defense University and an expert on the Mexican military.
“The odds that the army turns inward, not trusting anybody, are significant,” said Mr. Deare, who also served as head of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration. “We are in for a rough patch, and the bad guys will take advantage of it.”
Despite enjoying high approval ratings with Mexicans, the army has been plagued by corruption. In a report released this year, Mexico’s congressional audit office found irregularities in contracts for a different airport construction project while Gen. Cienfuegos was defense minister. It also found the army badly mismanaged a fund for rebuilding after two devastating earthquakes in 2017. In 88 of the 93 service contracts given out by the army, worth some $25 million, it couldn’t prove it had received the goods and services, according to the audit office.
Mexico’s military has never been formally investigated by civilian anticorruption watchdogs, nor has any military personnel been jailed on non-cartel-related corruption charges, said Mr. Benítez, a military expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“It’s like a guaranteed immunity,” said Mr. Benitez.
The arrest of Gen. Cienfuegos echoes the arrest of another top general, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, in Mexico in 1997, shortly after being named the country’s drug czar. Gen. Gutiérrez Rebollo was found guilty of accepting bribes for protecting the country’s then-top drug trafficker, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Gen. Gutiérrez Rebollo died while serving a 40-year prison term.
“There was never any reason to think that Mexico’s armed forces were an island of honesty in the infinite sea of corruption that is the Mexican state,” Mr. Castañeda, the former foreign minister, said.
Until Mexico can build effective and honest law-enforcement institutions, it will rely on the military to tackle organized crime, risking further corruption, said Rebecca Bill Chavez, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere in the Obama administration.
“Bringing in the army was supposed to be a short-term fix,” said Ms. Chavez. “Every president has said we will work on police reform, but relying on the military takes away all urgency.”
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