The news that the Mexican government had shut down operations of the elite DEA team in the country – the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) – provoked an avalanche of articles in the press, most of them defending the DEA in order to criticize the president. Hardly any of them spoke about the disastrous history of the Unit, much less about the perverse history and actions of the DEA in Mexico –and in all of Latin America. The agency has left a bloody trail of failures, incompliance with regulations, complicities and corruption in its mission to export the war on drugs as an instrument of social control and U.S. hegemony.
Goodbye to the SIU
Despite the fact that the decision to expel the Unit was made and executed more than a year ago, neither of the two governments announced the measure publicly and it was not until April of this year that the Reuters news agency published an article confirming, through anonymous sources, the Mexican government’s decision. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed and justified the news in his morning press conference April 21, saying, “We maintain cooperation between national agencies in charge of security, but they must respect our sovereignty, and before they came in and out of the country at will, and they made the rules, they did what they wanted, they even fabricated crimes. So, we’re putting the situation in order.”
The reference to the fabrication of crimes was clearly to the case of the arrest in the U.S. of General Salvador Cienfuegos, former Secretary of Defense, on charges of drug trafficking. The General was extradited to Mexico at the request of the president and exonerated within a few weeks. That the measure could have been in part a retaliation for Cienfuegos’s arrest based on a DEA investigation, without notifying the Mexican government, does not detract from the credibility of the serious charges against the DEA unit.
AMLO added an incontrovertible fact: “It was shown that this group was infiltrated by crime, including one of its bosses being tried in the U.S.” Let’s examine this fact. The president specifically refers to Iván Reyes Arzate, former head of the Special Investigative Unit from 2008-2016, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic cocaine and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the US in February. In a case linked to the accusations against the former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, who is currently awaiting trial in the US, the court found that the highest-level anti-drug agent, who had been investigated, vetted and trained by the US government, was working for the Beltrán Leyva cartel.
Reports in the U.S. portray these cases through the racist lens that they are proof that ‘Mexicans are corrupt and untrustworthy’, without asking how it is possible that the DEA’s elite Unit, which enjoyed a close working and daily relationship with the U.S. intelligence, was colluding with the cartels under their noses. Now enters the New York district court—the court that put together the case against Arzate, García Luna and other former high-level Mexican officials with alleged ties to organized crime—as if it were the final work on justice, but without any investigation or charges against the DEA that, as the president rightly says, managed the SIU, making major decisions regarding its strategies and actions.
What is the SIU?
The US Congress authorized the creation of the Special Investigation Units (SIU) in 1997, all in Latin America (Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Peru), with the mission of identifying and training anti-drug agents in the ‘host countries’ to carry out its strategy of cutting off the supply routes of prohibited substances to the US market.
The first thing to understand then is that the DEA and its units abroad are legally mandated exclusively to work in cooperative relationships toward US law enforcement goals. The investigations carried out abroad “are to support the domestic operations of the DEA and develop investigative cases against the most important drug trafficking organizations in the illicit drug market in the United States,” says the Department of Justice.
There is no formal interest or mandate to improve security in the host country, nor to dismantle networks or processes of violence and crime that are primarily domestic. There’s an inherent tension between the national priorities of the US government and the government in the country in which it operates. Enforcement of US law in national territory should not be the priority of a sovereign government outside the US. So the imposition–by agreement, manipulation or whatever reason–of this type of foreign operations in its territory is not only a problem of violation of sovereignty, it is an arrangement between two asymmetrical powers that undermines the possibility of the host country to establish and carry out its own security policy appropriate to its priorities. This conflict and its results have been evident in the last decades of expansion of the DEA in Mexico.
The second big problem is the model of intervention. The DEA applies a model called “the kingpin strategy” of killing or arresting the big bosses as a way to dismantle the cartel, selecting the cartels where it concentrates its efforts and thus empowering others. Carlos Pérez Ricart, a CIDE investigator and author of a forthcoming book on the DEA in Mexico, said in an interview in Hecho en América:
“In general, the Sensitive Investigation Units have been the spearhead, the mechanism from which the DEA has managed to transfer its Kingpin Strategy policy to Mexico, its strategy of reaching capos in particular, which all the literature on organized crime and specialist security has not ceased to qualify as nefarious and opposed to national interests.” He points out that the strategy has not reduced the flow of prohibited drugs to the United States and the fragmentation of the cartels that results from its application of this strategy has led to violence and “has stimulated widespread violations of human rights in Mexico.”
The U.S. reporter Keegan Hamilton published an article with the title “The DEA’s Elite Police Unit in Mexico was Actually Dirty as Hell”, pointing to not only the proven corruption among its leaders, but also inside information from active and retired agents. “I think in the specific context of SIU as well, that reflects a deeply broken system that has spiraled out of control for many years,” he said in an interview with the Americas Program.
The DEA in Mexico: What is it good for?
The experts’ analysis and our own research at the Americas Program come together on one fundamental point—the problem goes beyond the SIUs. The DEA’s mode of operation involves a dangerous game of playing one cartel against another, of protecting certain members as informants and arresting others as pieces of the strategy, when in reality the protected witness is often just as violent and guilty as the target. It leads to deadly information leaks and revenge cycles, complicity that corrupts, and “successes” in the arrest or murder of targets that lead to an increase in violence against society.
If the expulsion of the SIU causes tensions in this form of cooperation with the DEA, it is to be celebrated. Many years ago, both countries should have stopped along the way to assess the disastrous results of this model. Now that the official line is that the Mérida Initiative– the broad framework of binational cooperation in security matters since 2007– has ended, the challenge is to apply that in practice and not leave it as a mere political declaration.
This implies ending the war on drugs and the kingpin strategy and starting to put human, demilitarized and sustainable human security first. There are obvious inertias and hidden interests in the binational relationship that prevent this urgent goal from becoming a reality.
Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program in Mexico City at www.americas.org.