21 December 2020


Full Report: Mexico


  • Moves to limit US security agencies’ operations in Mexico will hamper cooperation against crime but cross-borders relations will improve over next year
  • Biden and AMLO will reach agreement on various issues including migration, trade and labour standards
  • Main points of friction between Biden and Mexico likely to be cross border security and institutional corruption



The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, approved amendments to the National Security Law limiting the role of foreign law enforcement agents inside Mexico on 15 December. The changes, which were already approved by the Senate, the upper house, establish that foreign agents must share any intelligence with the Mexican authorities, cannot bear arms without prior authorisation, cannot conduct arrests, will not have immunity from prosecution, and can be expelled from the country if they fail to follow these rules. The amendments came after the US investigated and arrested former Mexican defence minister General Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles in October, without prior discussion with Mexico, prompting a diplomatic spat. The US accused Cienfuegos of colluding with a drug cartel, but after an angry protest by Mexico, Washington released Cienfuegos who was allowed to travel back to Mexico in November.


The changes will mainly impact the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) which currently has about 50 agents based in Mexico. Relations have been strained in the past. For instance, after the 1985 kidnap and murder in Mexico of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, the agency launched a 5-year operation to find those responsible. As part of this operation, the DEA kidnapped a Mexican doctor allegedly involved in torturing the agent, and flew him to the US where he was formally arrested. A cartel leader eventually served 28 years in a Mexican prison for Camarena’s murder but was released early in 2013 and is still at large. Relations between the DEA and Mexican law enforcement nonetheless improved in recent years, as shown by successful joint operations such as the 2019 capture and subsequent deportation of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. The DEA has preferred to work with the Mexican navy, which is seen as the least corruptible Mexican force, but has also conducted operations with the army.

Source: US Drug Enforcement Administration


On the short term, the new law will reduce the effectiveness of Mexico-US security cooperation. For instance, all contacts between the countries’ agencies must be authorised in advance, and more people, including officials from the foreign ministry, must be present at each meeting. This increases the possibility of intelligence leaks and may reduce information sharing. US Attorney General Barr has said the new provisions would benefit the cartels. On the Mexican side, the move reflects that Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has become increasingly dependent on the military, which demanded that he take a stand over the Cienfuegos affair. AMLO needs the army to control the drug cartels, but also to tackle fuel theft, control border migration, build COVID-19 hospitals, and to build the New Mexico City airport, among other projects. However, AMLO will also have aimed to appeal to Mexican nationalists, who were offended by the Cienfuegos incident.


AMLO was also one of the slowest international leaders to recognise Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections. However, AMLO did eventually congratulate Biden. Biden is expected to take a less aggressive, more diplomatic, rules-based, and predictable policy stance. The new law will increase friction in US-Mexico bilateral relations, however, unlike relations with the outgoing Donald Trump this friction is likely to be short-lived. Over time Biden and AMLO are likely to reach an agreement on a range of bilateral issues, including migration, trade, labour standards and cooperating against cross border drugs smuggling. However, significant friction is likely to remain over challenging cross-border security issues, the treatment of US energy companies, climate change, anti-corruption measures and human rights. Meanwhile, as Biden’s main priorities will be to combat COVID-19 and promote a domestic economic recovery, a comprehensive reset of bilateral relations will take at least six months.

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