Days before President Joe Biden took office, Mexico’s national prosecutor exonerated former Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who had been suddenly arrested in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges last October and just as suddenly released to Mexican custody by the Trump administration one month later.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador not only supported the decision; he accused the US Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating the case against the general, who had been charged with participating in a drug trafficking and money laundering scheme. The summary of the DEA investigation, which was released by López Obrador, reveals that Cienfuegos was referred to as “Padrino” or “Godfather” in multiple communications with a Mexican drug cartel.
But when Biden met López Obrador this week for the first time as president, there was no indication that they specifically discussed the Cienfuegos case or US claims of Mexican military involvement in drug trafficking or even human rights violations, including the disappearance of 43 student activists.
Their focus was on expanding legal pathways for migration to the US, helping Mexico obtain COVID-19 vaccines, and cooperation on efforts to curb climate change.
US foreign policy experts, however, say that Mexico’s handling of the Cienfuegos case shows a pattern of impunity for the Mexican armed forces, which have taken on an expanded and powerful role under López Obrador.
“The clearest message is that the Mexican government has no real interest in ensuring that allegations of crimes and human rights violations against top military leadership are going to be investigated and prosecuted in the Mexican justice system,” said Maureen Meyer, a US-Mexico security policy expert at the Washington-based research and advocacy organization WOLA.
“There is a real concern now that the military has been given so much power in Mexico that it puts the [Mexican] president himself in a bind in terms of even critiquing them because he relies on them not only for the bulk of security at the federal level in Mexico but for his main infrastructure projects,” Meyer told WhoWhatWhy.
López Obrador used the catchphrase “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not bullets”) to campaign in 2018 for the removal of the military from the bloody war on drugs in Mexico’s streets. But after winning the presidential election, his strategy shifted to creating a national guard from elite Mexican military security forces. And by 2020, the Mexican president was relying on the military not only as a police force but also to provide COVID-19 relief, build an international airport and other public works, and manage commercial seaports, among other functions usually reserved for civilians.
Meyer and other experts see the militarization of Mexico as one of the biggest challenges to Biden’s diplomacy in the region. But they fear that the Biden administration will follow the path of the Trump administration, which ultimately chose border security over promoting reforms in Mexico when it released Cienfuegos citing “important foreign policy considerations.”
“We have in the past seen US administrations, like the Obama administration, which had a lot of similar officials that are coming into office with Biden, who would seek to have a relationship based on cooperation and mutual interests,” Meyer said. “But oftentimes those interests are more on economic cooperation, on security cooperation, on extraditions in the drug trade, and not on human rights.”
Tellingly, Biden’s sweeping $4 billion plan to reduce migration to the US focuses on combating government corruption, violence, and poverty in Central America, but doesn’t mention Mexico, where the drug war has claimed over 150,000 lives since 2006, and more than 73,000 people have gone missing or disappeared.
How Nationalism Could Undermine Human Rights
López Obrador decried the United States’ arrest of Cienfuegos as a dangerous intervention in Mexican affairs, and he has at least twice now warned Biden to respect Mexico’s sovereignty.
“We are certain that, with you as president of the United States, it will be possible to continue applying the basic principles of foreign policy contained in the [Mexican] constitution,” the Mexican president wrote Biden on December 14, “especially non-intervention and the right to self-determination of both countries.”
That was a point he repeated during their meeting this week. “That there is respect for each other’s sovereignty is very important,” López Obrador said after Biden called Mexico an “equal.”
As both presidents now work on finding new common ground on immigration, Mexican families with murdered or missing relatives are calling for both governments to take account of human rights violations that haven’t been investigated because of “national interests,” including the case of the students who vanished six and a half years ago in the state of Guerrero.
Who Holds Mexico’s Military Accountable?
“I don’t remember if it was at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. that Friday night when I received a text message from my daughter saying that there was a problem in Ayotzinapa,” said Antonio Tizapa, the father of one of the 43 missing Teachers College students who disappeared in Mexico on September 26, 2014.
At that moment, Tizapa was living in New York. And neither he, nor his family in Mexico, knew that his son Jorge and his fellow classmates had traveled approximately 80 miles from the Teachers College in Ayotzinapa to the city of Iguala.
The Mexican father would later find out that the students were going to “botear” or “ask for donations” in Iguala to take a bus north to Mexico City for a protest commemorating the 46th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre — where Mexican armed forces killed at least 44 unarmed protestors on October 2, 1968.
Tizapa, who refers to his son Jorge in present tense six and a half years after his disappearance, says that he will turn 26 years old on June 7. And while López Obrador has met with Ayotzinapa parents and created a truth commission to investigate the case, Tizapa accuses the government of putting its interests above those of the students.
“I know that some of the mothers and fathers had hoped that López Obrador’s government would help us. But I think that we are being manipulated for political reasons because Ayotzinapa has gained wide recognition in Mexico and abroad,” he said. “Some people who joined our cause are now using it to get elected into office.”
The former Mexican government, under President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), concluded initially that the college students had been arrested by police from Iguala and Cocula, and then handed over to a drug-trafficking gang who murdered and incinerated them at a garbage dump.
Evidence from independent investigators later contradicted this account and showed how Mexican authorities tortured suspects to get false confessions.
Recently, López Obrador confirmed that a witness implicated soldiers in the mass disappearance of the 43 students.
But despite the president’s promise to guarantee transparency in the Ayotzinapa case, the military continues to dodge requests to testify. And experts say that the exoneration of Cienfuegos, who was defense secretary during Peña Nieto’s tenure, sends a message that military and government officials will not be held accountable.
“Even in the Ayotzinapa case, Cienfuegos himself was very adamant in blocking the group of [independent] experts from the Inter-American Commission from being able to interview Mexican soldiers in Iguala about what they knew of the student disappearance,” Meyer said.
The security policies expert pointed out that when Cienfuegos was defense secretary there were more than 100 findings of human rights violations committed by soldiers. And while every case is unique, the general’s exoneration makes it clear that Mexico does not want its officials to be prosecuted, either at home or abroad, she said.
“The Mexican government seems to have no issue so far in the US investigating individuals implicated of organized crime or extraditing drug traffickers from Mexico. Where they appear to draw the line is in the United States’ investigations of Mexican officials,” Meyer said.
When Cienfuegos was released by the US in November 2020, Tizapa said that it compelled him to reflect deeply about the military and the national interests that protect it. This reinforced his idea that finding solidarity with other marginalized groups would be key to getting justice for Ayotzinapa in Mexico and the US.
“The military’s duty is to protect its people,” he told WhoWhatWhy. “But instead, they and the government are the ones who are kidnapping and murdering their people. So we have to keep fighting inside and outside of Mexico. Unite with other people because Ayotzinapa is not the government. It’s the tip of a spear that unites different causes to get justice.”
Finding Solidarity With Other People to Get Justice in Mexico
Two years before the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, Javier Sicilia, another Mexican father of a murdered child, had traveled almost 7,000 miles nationwide, visiting more than 25 US cities in a caravan to rally American support for thousands of Mexican families that were being destroyed by the war on drugs.
Sicilia’s 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, was brutally murdered by a drug gang on March 28, 2011, along with six other victims.
He said that his son was a college athlete with a scholarship who had never taken drugs. Sicilia rallied hundreds of Mexican protesters to end the war on drugs, which he says has only escalated violence.
Like Tizapa, Sicilia saw that Mexican and US drug war policies do not support marginalized communities in either country. He sought to move past national borders to unite both Mexicans and Americans so they could call on their governments together to prioritize human rights.
During the New York leg of his caravan, Sicilia spoke at a vigil for the Mexican victims of the drug war, held at Riverside Church in Manhattan on September 11, 2012.
He channeled the powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr., who 45 years earlier had delivered a now famous speech at Riverside Church urging Americans to look past foreign policy and stand up for human rights at home and abroad.
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war,” King said as he called for an end to the Vietnam War. “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
Sicilia said during a phone interview in 2017 that the militarization of Mexico had created a state of war that undermines both human and civil rights. And just over one year before López Obrador would be elected president, Sicilia warned about nationalism marginalizing communities on both sides of the border.
“Here in Mexico they are pressuring to pass a national security law that will create the legal framework for a state of exception, which is precisely what was created in 2006 with the drug war when the army was mobilized onto the streets,” he said. “If Trump and the Mexican government work together to extend this state of exception, I think things will only get worse. And this is probably the most likely path since both governments have not imagined a solution that goes beyond war.”
Sicilia advocated for policies that elevated humanity and the planet as cornerstones of foreign policy.
“Beyond any nationalist ideology, or economic ideology, or globalization, we need to put back at the center what we lost from our political life — which is humanity,” he said. “If we do not work for human dignity, I believe that we will not find the way out of this civilizational crisis.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).