The fall from grace of the Mexican Army’s former head has raised uncomfortable questions about López Obrador’s dependence on the military to fight Mexican drug cartels and manage a growing portfolio of vital civilian infrastructure.
MEXICO CITY (Grupo Reforma) – The arrest last Thursday of former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos in the United States at the Los Angeles airport on drug trafficking charges shook politics. It shamed an institution that had always been known to be very reliable.
The arrest threatens to damage the government’s relations with the military, which, since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018, has taken on the task of reducing violence and of managing ports and even building an airport.
“He has put all his political capital into making his political project work through the military,” said Falko Ernst, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “If he walks away from that, there is no one else to turn to at this point. You don’t have many other options left,” he added.
Lopez Obrador responded to Cienfuegos’ arrest by pledging to eradicate military corruption, which does not quite match the trust he previously placed in Mexico’s generals.
Now, the same Army leaders the president is counting on to pacify Mexico after years of cartel violence could end up on the sidelines of top civilian security appointments, officials say.
Before Cienfuegos’ arrest, speculation grew that Lopez Obrador would appoint a general to replace Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo, who has indicated his intention to run for Sonora’s government in 2021.
“This changes the rules of the game,” said a high-ranking federal police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. López Obrador would have to “pay a high political price to put a military figure in charge of the civilian body”.
Accusing Cienfuegos, who led the military from 2012 to 2018, with the same crime he was supposed to eradicate risks shaking a vital pillar of the Mexican state to its core and provoking its wrath, another official said. “The military is not going to take it well at all,” he said.
On Friday, Lopez Obrador strongly endorsed Cienfuegos’ successor at the head of the Army and his counterpart in the Navy, saying he had personally investigated them and guaranteed their honesty.
Some generals have been jailed on drug charges before. Still, the arrest of the former military chief by a foreign power is a severe blow to the prestige of an institution that has prided itself on being the main guarantor of the country’s stability since the Mexican Revolution a century ago.
In part, this is because Mexican presidents have chosen to cut and change civilian police institutions rather than build on what their predecessors started, critics say.
However, that was often a reaction to perceived corruption within those bodies, as evidenced by the arrest in December 2019 of former Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna by U.S. officials allegedly accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
General Salvador Cienfuegos faced his first hearing since his arrest in Los Angeles the day before Friday. As we have reported, the apprehension of the former Secretary of National Defense during the six-year term of Enrique Peña Nieto was made at the DEA’s request as part of the so-called “Operation Godfather”.
The Eastern District Court of New York has charged Cienfuegos with four counts related to the manufacture and distribution of drugs in the United States and money laundering. Not long ago, however, U.S. authorities considered the former federal official a man worthy of recognition.
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