Bill Barr's Christmas Gift to Mexican Drug Lords

By dropping drug charges against Mexico's former defense minister, the AG also hoped to prevent the exposure of CIA sources in the military, agents say

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Outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr’s surprise decision to drop narcotics charges against former Mexican army general and defense minister is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving—to Mexican officials, including those fronting for their nation’s all-powerful drug cartels. But it also may save CIA and U.S. Defense Department operations in Mexico.

Mexican lawmakers outraged by the arrest of retired General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, and probably emboldened by Barr’s retreat, last week passed legislation that would sharply curtail anti-narcotics cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico, whose cartels supply nearly all the heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and counterfeit opioids sold on the streets of the United States.

By stripping diplomatic immunity from about a hundred DEA agents, analysts and other anti-drug personnel assigned to Mexico, and by demanding elaborate permissions from Mexican officials, the new law “will prevent any significant investigative work from occurring in Mexico,” says a recently retired DEA official who spent years investigating the Mexican crime syndicates. 

“It’s going to dry up the sources who are willing to come forward because they’re going to think, if I talk to DEA, Mexican officials are going to find out,” he told SpyTalk, speaking freely only on terms of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

That’s great news for the drug kingpins and their protectors in the Mexican government. It’s also good news for the CIA and Pentagon, which maintain close relationships with Mexican military and intelligence agencies in order to carry out their counter-espionage and counter-terror missions. And it’s good for the retired general himself, of course.

Close Encounters

“Cienfuegos and SEDENA have been closely aligned with the CIA for many years,” says a former U.S. official who served in Mexico. SEDENA stands for Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, the Mexican defense ministry.

Some experts on the Mexican drug trade tell SpyTalk they suspect that Barr feared the exposure of CIA sources and methods that might come with a trial of Cienfuegos, Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018. Since Barr worked at the CIA from 1973 to 1977, while studying at George Washington University Law School, he would know that the general might be able to name names of American intelligence and military liaison officers posted to Mexican and to discuss technical intelligence collection methods the U.S.used in Mexico.

Our requests for comment put to Barr, federal prosecutors and the general’s defense lawyers went unanswered. The CIA declined to comment.

Since the early years of the Cold War, Russian, Chinese, Cuban and other hostile intelligence services have used Mexico as a base for recruiting and debriefing American double agents—and the CIA has used elements of Mexico’s military and internal security services to help keep track of them, including with clandestine surveillance teams and technology provided by the U.S. 

In 1963, the CIA infamously detected Lee Harvey Oswald visiting the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City, ostensibly seeking visas, shortly before he traveled to Dallas and shot President John F. Kennedy. Aldrich Ames served at the CIA station in Mexico City before volunteering to Moscow to work as a double agent. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. intelligence agencies have also used their Mexican counterparts to help find and stop Middle Eastern terrorists attempting to cross the border into the United States.

These days, Mexico is also the primary source for most of the illicit drugs sold on the streets of the United States. Its government military and security services are known to be corrupted or intimidated by the  cartels that control the billion-dollar trade in drugs, arms and people. As a result of a drug trafficking investigation originated by the DEA office in Las Vegas, Cienfuegos was secretly indicted last year in federal court in Brooklyn. arrested last October when he landed at Los Angeles International airport, and transferred to New York to stand trial. 

On Nov. 6, the U.S. magistrate presiding over the Cienfuegos case issued a so-called discovery order directing federal prosecutors to provide the Mexican’s defense team with "all information 'favorable to an accused’ that is 'material either to guilt or to punishment' and that is known to the Government.”  

An order for “all” information that would help Cienfuegos’ defense could require the U.S. government to divulge details about how the Mexican army under Cienfuegos’ leadership assisted U.S. intelligence in tracking hostile spy services and suspected terror cells. The order went on to say that if the government refused to provide Cienfuegos with information relevant to his defense, the court would impose sanctions or dismiss the charges. The litigation didn’t get that far. 

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On November 17, 11 days after the order was issued, Barr himself instructed federal prosecutors in Brooklyn to go into court and ask the judge to dismiss the charges. The attorney general claimed he acted in the interest of furthering unspecified cooperation. He added that the Mexican government had promised to investigate Cienfuegos. Given epidemic corruption in the Mexican judicial system, that rationale seems laughable. 

Protection racket

Veteran observers hypothesize that Barr acted to protect CIA and DOD interests, bolstered by the abrupt way he pulled the plug on the Cienfuegos case. The anti-American rhetoric of Mexican politicians wouldn’t be enough to cause most U.S. attorney generals to buckle, or so the thinking goes.

“When Barr has so many other things on his plate, why would he care if Mexico was pissed off about Cienfuegos?” one former official wondered. “Why would he even take time to be involved? He could easily have punted this and let the Biden administration handle it. Why the decision so suddenly, with little consultation with other parts of the government, and against the wishes of the prosecution team?” 

“That leads to a surmise that there were potential issues with intelligence community relationships being revealed in open court,” the former official added. “To avoid the shitstorm and all the uncertainty of how far down the rabbit hole the case would go— having to litigate limits, having officers of the CIA called to testify—all that could have driven Barr to make his decision.”

The legislation passed by the Mexican congress would remove diplomatic immunity enjoyed by about 60 agents and another 40 intelligence analysts and support personnel assigned to 10 DEA offices in Mexico City and major trafficking hubs. As well, according to the online outlet Mexico News Daily, Mexican officials would be required to seek permission from a Mexican government “security panel” before they could meet with DEA (or FBI, Homeland Security and other “foreign agents”) and would be required to “promptly provide details of what they discussed to the Foreign Affairs and Security ministries.” The result, of course, would be a paper trail that unscrupulous officials could use to identify DEA or other U.S. agencies’ sources and methods.

Cienfuegos rose up in the ranks of the Mexican army, which the Mexican government uses for civilian law enforcement. According to U.S. sources, years ago the CIA set up an elite Mexican army unit to take action on certain U.S. targets. DEA agents tried working with that unit but gave up after it failed to take timely action against Mexico’s top kingpins, including Joaquin “El Chapo'' Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, and Nemesio Oseguera-Cervantes, boss of the rival Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.

Around 2007, frustrated DEA agents turned to an elite Mexican navy unit of marines trained by U.S. Navy SEALs. The  marines gained a reputation as the most highly skilled and least corrupt of Mexico’s security forces. In 2016, notably, the marines, armed with intelligence from DEA and U.S. technical surveillance gear, arrested “El Chapo”, He was extradited, tried and convicted in federal court in Brooklyn and is now serving life plus 30 years in the federal Supermax prison in Colorado. According to some sources, the CIA has also worked with the Mexican navy and marines.

Drugs invasion

The Cienfuegos affair comes at a crucial moment. The Mexican cartels appear to be richer, bolder and more violent than ever. DEA’s ability to gather and act on intelligence about cartel movements is being diminished when it is urgently needed. 

More Americans are dying of drug overdoses than at any other time in the nation’s history, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Dec. 17, the CDC reported that  drug overdose deaths in the United States sharply accelerated during the first months of the pandemic to the highest number ever recorded. In the year that ended in May 2020, the CDC estimated that 81,000 Americans had died of drug overdoses— up nearly 40 percent over the year that ended in June 2019. The main driver, the CDC said, was the extremely potent opioid  fentanyl, smuggled from China to Mexico and then into the United States. 

Other metrics are similarly gloomy. Customs and Border Protection reports that U.S. seizures of methamphetamine and fentanyl smuggled from Mexico set new records during  fiscal year 2020, which ended in October, and heroin seizures remained high.

At the same time, cartel violence in Mexico soared as rival trafficking groups warred over increasingly lucrative smuggling routes. Mexico’s homicide rate has risen to an historic high level, about six times the homicide rate in the U.S. 

There’s no sign yet that things will change under a Biden administration. 

On December 19, Biden spoke by phone with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to the Biden team’s official read-out of the call, the topic was mostly controlling immigration from Central America. 

Drugs did not come up at all. 

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