Washington, D.C., December 9, 2020 – Since 2007, the U.S. government has relied on a small coterie of Mexican officials to implement the Mérida Initiative, a wide-ranging U.S. aid program to fight organized crime and narcotrafficking. Now, some of those same individuals are facing trial in the United States on charges of rampant corruption linking them to drug cartels.
Documents published today by the National Security Archive describe growing internal U.S. warnings about the vital need to properly vet officials involved with the multi-billion-dollar initiative. Instead, some of the most senior and trusted counter-narcotics officers in Mexico appear to have not only raked in millions of dollars in bribes but leaked highly sensitive intelligence to the very drug cartels they were supposed to combat.
The documents, obtained largely through the Freedom of Information Act, are a revealing window into the complexities of managing a major, sensitive U.S. aid program. They also have direct salience for Mexico today as the legal and diplomatic issues surrounding the prosecutions of key former Mexican officials not only threaten to undermine Mérida’s legacy but have serious implications for efforts to investigate and defend against human rights abuses by elements within the Mexican government.
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Ten years ago, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico laid bare a profound truth about the Mérida Initiative, a multi-billion-dollar U.S. security assistance package focused on combating organized crime and promoting the rule of law in a country ravaged by narcotics-related violence and corruption.
The success of the program, the Embassy said, hinged in large part on the ability to build “trustworthy institutions” in Mexico, screen out corrupt actors, and ensure that the sensitive information and powerful law enforcement tools being provided by the U.S. did not fall into the wrong hands.
The May 2010 Embassy missive, signed by U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, emphasized that vetting programs initiated under this framework—known as “Control de Confianza” (“Confidence Control”)—were “critical to the success of the entire Merida Initiative”:
If equipment and training are provided to corrupt individuals, the [U.S. government] will have accomplished nothing more than provide expertise and technology to individuals who may use it to undermine all [U.S. government] efforts in Mexico. The bottom line is that if Control de Confianza fails, Merida fails.
A decade later, those fears have apparently been borne out. Two Mexican officials considered central to Mérida’s success, former Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna and Iván Reyes Arzate, the longtime head of the U.S.-backed Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU), are currently awaiting trial in the U.S. on charges that they took millions of dollars in bribes to protect drug cartels. A third official, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the former defense secretary, was recently released from U.S. custody despite what is reportedly overwhelming evidence of his ties to narcotraffickers. Mexico has since signaled its intention to request that the U.S. also return García Luna to Mexico.
The release of Cienfuegos has set off alarms among groups seeking justice in high-profile human rights abuse cases they say have languished for years in toothless Mexican courts. The families of 43 student teachers forcibly disappeared in 2014 worry that the liberation of Cienfuegos will generate additional resistance among the military to ongoing investigations. As Secretary of Defense, Cienfuegos himself denied investigators the possibility of interviewing military members about the case, maintaining such investigations would be a violation of soldiers’ rights. “Impunity remains the norm,” according to the most recent report for Mexico from Human Rights Watch.
The May 2010 cable is part of a new collection of declassified documents describing the extent to which the U.S. relied on these individuals to allocate billions of dollars in security assistance, manage a steady flow of sensitive U.S. intelligence and law enforcement information, and implement programs meant to root out corrupt officials, all while these same individuals are said to have secretly profited from the very narcotrafficking groups that were fueling violence and murder in Mexico. Their arrests represent a serious blow to the legacy of a program that has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Mexico since 2007 and raised serious doubts about Mexico’s commitment to confronting narcotics-related corruption and impunity—a key component of U.S. policy toward Mexico for more than two decades.
Thirteen years since the Mérida Initiative was launched, ushering in an era of “shared responsibility” for these security challenges, Mexico continues to see record violence. Homicide rates have risen steadily, with organized criminal groups responsible for as many as half of the murders in the country during that time. Reporting by the country’s National Search Commission found that of the 61,637 disappearances reported since 1964, 97% occurred between 2006 and 2019. Yet accountability remains limited due to high levels of corruption and impunity and despite $2.3 billion in funding appropriated by U.S. Congress for equipment delivery, training, and capacity building for Mérida Initiative projects focused on “Disrupting the Operational Capacity of Organized Crime” and “Institutionalizing Reforms to Sustain the Rule of Law and Respect for Human Rights in Mexico.”
García Luna, who was arrested one year ago on December 9, 2019, pleaded “not guilty” in an October 2020 hearing and remains in U.S. custody. Among other evidence, U.S. prosecutors cite the statements of former top members of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of whom testified to personally delivering “briefcases containing between three and five million dollars” to García Luna, “in exchange for the defendant’s assurance that we would assist the Sinaloa Cartel.”
U.S. prosecutors have formally linked the case against García Luna to that of Iván Reyes Arzate, who for years was the head of a special police task force created and vetted in coordination with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a central point of contact for the sharing of sensitive U.S. intelligence and law enforcement information. Among other accusations, Reyes Arzate and his co-conspirators are said to have “tipped off cartel members when the DEA had obtained judicial authorization to intercept their phones, and leaked the identity of a cooperating source who was covertly working with the DEA to gather evidence against the cartel.”
Reyes Arzate led the SIU when members of the unit passed sensitive U.S. law enforcement information to the Zetas criminal group, sparking, among other things, the March 2011 massacre in Allende, Coahuila, according to reporting from ProPublica. A subsequent report from the investigative group found that, since 2007, “most of the unit’s Mexican supervisors have either been compromised by payoffs and bribes from various drug traffickers, or killed in ways that strongly suggest they were inside hits.” The U.S. suspended assistance soon after Reyes Arzate became the target of DEA suspicions. Ironically—perhaps only coincidentally—the final U.S. delivery under the SIU assistance package was a shipment of paper shredders in September 2016.
The exposure of alleged corruption at the highest levels of Mexico’s security establishment has done little to stem the flow of U.S. security assistance. Congress most recently allocated $150 million for accounts that fund Mérida Initiative activities, exceeding the requested amount for 2020 by $73 million. The House Appropriations Committee is currently weighing an additional $140 million for the 2021 fiscal year.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018, has used the corruption allegations to point a finger at his predecessors and to question whether the U.S. should also share the blame. A new proposal submitted last week by his government would strip U.S. agents in Mexico of diplomatic immunity and require them to share any intelligence collected with the Mexican government. The DEA, he said, has acted with “complete freedom” in Mexico, according to comments made in October and reported by Reuters. “Why is it,” he asked, “that it’s just the people in Mexico who took part in these acts being accused or implicated, and (the DEA) aren’t criticizing themselves, reflecting on the meddling by all these agencies in Mexico?”
García Luna: “A trusted liaison, partner and friend”
From the beginning of the Mérida Initiative in 2007, Genaro García Luna was seen as one of the most important figures in the reform of Mexico’s internal security system, which had become increasingly reliant on the military to fight organized crime. As the newly-named head of the Secretariat for Public Security (SSP)—a rough equivalent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—he would be instrumental in the reassertion of civilian control over Mexican security institutions. This reform would entail a restructuring of Mexico’s police, merging the SSP Federal Preventive Police (PFP) and the Federal Investigations Agency (AFI) Federal Police into one unit under SSP control.
A U.S. Embassy cable written shortly after his appointment in December 2006 described García Luna as “a trusted liaison, partner and friend of the FBI.” García Luna had previously held a variety of key positions in the Mexican security establishment, including top posts at CISEN, Mexico’s CIA equivalent, and later as head of the AFI, similar to the U.S. FBI. Yet it was during his four-year stint as AFI chief (2001-2005) that he allegedly began to take money from the Sinaloa Cartel. The Embassy cable said that having García Luna positioned “at the top of the civilian security structure should help maintain the excellent cooperation that the [U.S. government] law enforcement agencies enjoyed” under the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006).
As head of the SSP, García Luna assumed control of the agency that was to be the vanguard of President Felipe Calderón’s (2006-2012) strategy to control organized crime. The SSP chief steered the development of a massive new communications network, giving him an unprecedented level of access to sensitive information on counter-narcotics operations, and exercised considerable control over augmented vetting procedures meant to screen out corrupt officers. By October 2009, a cable from the U.S. Embassy Mexico viewed García Luna as a “key player” in Mexico’s security apparatus whose cooperation was necessary to move the “law enforcement agenda to new levels of practical cooperation.” More than anything, the U.S. was focused on encouraging him to “operationalize, in real time, critical intelligence that we can provide.” Another cable found that the SSP, under García Luna, was “increasingly becoming a major player on the intel block.”
A U.S. State Department briefing paper prepared for a December 2007 meeting between García Luna and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, shortly after the Mérida Initiative was announced, said that the SSP director’s “role in the national security context is the most complex, given the extensive corruption that permeated the previous Federal Preventive Police force and the extraordinary technological projects he has initiated.” One of García Luna’s key projects, Plataforma México, is described as “a communications system that will provide inter-connectivity throughout the country, potentially linking police and prosecutors at all levels of government across Mexico,” putting García Luna at the nerve center of narcotics related intelligence in the country.
Negroponte encouraged García Luna’s efforts to centralize control of Mexico’s internal security forces and noted “the importance of harmonizing policing across Mexico,” according to a readout from the December meeting. García Luna replied that the reforms planned by President Calderón “would force police to work nationally in a coordinated manner.” Plataforma México, described as “the billion-dollar scheme for establishing interconnections between all police and prosecutors,” would “allow SSP to analyze criminal trends in real time,” according to García Luna, giving the agency effective control over sensitive intelligence and law enforcement information on the cartels. Support provided through the Mérida Initiative, he told Negroponte, “would help provide the police the technological advantage now enjoyed by the well-funded criminal organizations they face.”
A U.S. Embassy “Spot Report” from 2009 described the near completion of the “National Command and Control Center” (known informally as “The Bunker”) located immediately adjacent to SSP headquarters in Mexico City and that would house Plataforma México. The Embassy report said the new facility would “allow all federal and local entities to work together in protected space with a full flow of information.” The Bunker looked “like a NASA command center with multiple screens and three rows of trained computer operators monitoring data and events across the country.”
As the physical principal site of Plataforma Mexico the command center will have the information needed to empower the SSP operations officers to collate intelligence regarding major incidents from many of its departments and manage them from initial prevention, response, and resumption of normal conditions after the incident.
The SSP also went through a massive personnel expansion under García Luna, largely thanks to funding provided from the U.S. through the Mérida Initiative, putting the SSP chief in a position to verify the trustworthiness of thousands of new police recruits. A U.S. Embassy cable summarizing a February 2007 meeting with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said the massive recruitment effort “would require a new approach to vetting officers.” García Luna hoped “that DHS could help him establish programs for assuring the integrity of his force,” according to the cable. These comments came amid a discussion about intelligence and information exchanges between the DHS and SSP, including possible “protocols to allow for more sharing of ‘high-quality’ law enforcement intelligence.” The briefing paper prepared for the December 2007 Negroponte meeting recommended that he ask Mexico’s attorney general “for his assessment of the [Mexican government’s] plans to create a national police force under Public Security Secretary Garcia Luna, including how the [Mexican government] intends to avoid the problems of corruption and alleged human rights violations that have derailed previous reform efforts.”
The U.S. Embassy also endorsed García Luna’s handling of personnel vetting in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report from November 2007. Under the heading “Professionalization of the Federal Police,” the report praised the SSP chief, who it said had begun “to morph the federal police structure into an entity that is more effective and trustworthy.” García Luna had replaced hundreds of officials, it said, and the SSP would “soon have the means to vet its entire force … stemming the rampant corruption that has existed.” In April 2008, García Luna told a group of visiting U.S. congressional staffers that the centralization of state and municipal police forces under SSP control “would enforce professionalization and break the back of the pervasive corruption.”
At the same time, there was growing concern that the ability to screen out untrustworthy officials was not keeping pace with the flow of U.S. security assistance reaching Mexican security forces. In one instance, Mexican security expert Ernesto López Portillo told the Embassy he thought García Luna was “overly reliant on vetting police officers … instead of changing the institutions themselves.” The SSP was “taking on too many projects in too short a period of time,” he said, adding that he “fears that the [Government of Mexico] will build up a very powerful justice system supported by lots of technology and equipment but too little accountability.”
A cable from the following month noted the alarming rise in violence directed at high-level police officials, including “close DEA contacts” and “a leader in the DEA’s Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU).” The Embassy chose to link the uptick in violence to the government’s “success in disrupting the cartels—in the form of pressure applied through massive military/police surges along with more targeted arrests based on improved intelligence.”
More concrete problems with the vetting programs were evident in cables from the following year. One found that “A number of senior level PGR and SSP officials have not passed vetting or polygraph tests, and over a quarter of the 60 individuals selected for the senior-level SSP training course did not pass their exams.” A subsequent cable stressed that Mexico’s security strategy was “often fractured, ad hoc, and heavily reliant on the United States for leads and operations.”
Reyes Arzate: “The Principal Point of Contact for Information Sharing”
While García Luna oversaw all police operations as head of the SSP, Reyes Arzate’s position as SIU chief made him “the principal point of contact for information sharing between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel assigned to the SIU.” For eight years, Reyes Arzate “routinely had contact with and worked collaboratively with DEA agents in Mexico City,” according to U.S. federal prosecutors, while at the same time collaborating with some of Mexico’s most dangerous criminal groups.
A set of declassified letters from the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) describes a range of sensitive equipment provided to the SIU under the Mérida Initiative from 2011, the year the unit leaked information that sparked the Allende massacre, through 2016, the year when U.S. prosecutors say that Reyes Arzate first drew the attention of U.S. law enforcement. Equipment provided under the program included armored vehicles, motorcycles, computers, and data extraction tools. Interestingly, the final memo in the set, dated September 26, 2016—the same month that U.S. law enforcement began to suspect Reyes Arzate—described a shipment of paper shredders.
U.S. support for the Mexico SIU long predated the Mérida Initiative and went well beyond the equipment described in the INL memos. Mexico (along with Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) was one of the first countries where the U.S. set up an SIU to coordinate counter-narcotics investigations and operations, including the sharing of sensitive intelligence information. The specialized units, first housed in the office of Mexico’s Attorney General (PGR), were seen as a means of dealing with the problem of corruption within Mexican security forces, especially when it came to counter-narcotics operations. As early as 1995, the U.S. and Mexico were discussing “the possibility of creating a special joint unit consisting of elements of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement and the attorney general’s office” to assist Mexico’s “efforts to fight narco-trafficking and the attendant corruption that flows from it.” The SIU was to be the exemplar for the modeling of “clean” units in Mexico.
The importance that the U.S. placed on the vetted unit concept was evident as early as 1996, after Mexico’s Attorney General, Jorge Madrazo, released from detention an alleged second suspect in the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. “The key [U.S. government] interest in the affair remains that of continuity within the PGR,” according to a U.S. Embassy cable from August 8, 1996.
The only hope for long term reform of corruption, unprofessionalism, and disorganization in the PGR lies in continuity of trusted personnel. Any change in PGR leadership at this time would not only stop any chance of such reform for the moment (such as the upcoming shakeup of the Federal Judicial Police), but threaten important bilateral cooperation programs such as the border task forces and vetted investigative units.
The need to get vetted investigative units up and running became even more urgent, in the view of the U.S. government, after the February 1997 arrest of Gen. Jesús Héctor Gutiérrez Rebollo, an Army general who had more recently been director of Mexico’s National Institute for Combating Drugs (Instituto Nacional para el Combate a las Drogas – INCD). Gutiérrez was to be the first person prosecuted under Mexico’s new Organized Crime Law, accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Juárez Cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
In the days following the Gutiérrez arrest, U.S. Ambassador James Jones called on Attorney General Madrazo to discuss the newly-formed SIU. Madrazo said he feared that Gutiérrez had “compromised” some of his agency’s most important narcotics investigations, as he had “deceived a lot of people in the Army and the Secretariat of Defense,” adding that their “first impressions of him were all very positive.” Gutérrez’s firing, Madrazo said, was intended to send the “very strong” message “that even at the highest levels, Mexican officials cannot carry out crimes with impunity.” Madrazo continued that the next INCD director would “be subjected to the most demanding tests” and an “extensive vetting process.” The Gutiérrez arrest was “a golden opportunity for sweeping structural reforms, a clean break with the past,” according to the ambassador. “Madrazo could take a negative-seeming event and turn it into a positive,” according to the Embassy’s read-out of the meeting.
A year later, a U.S. State Department démarche on counter-narcotics cooperation with Mexico said that “the creation of vetted and technically-proficient teams to combat organized crime” showed “great potential for impact against the cartels and for improving bilateral cooperation.” The U.S. was pleased with “efforts to identify and remove corrupt individuals,” according to the document, but said that “institutional changes are needed to prevent it from recurring.” Vetted units were “a solid first step in addressing the problem of corruption.” However, the State Department said that “Mexico should expand the vetting process to include a wider range of officials in sensitive positions in key institutions as well as examine ways to further strengthen its security practices.”
The SIU was transferred to the cognizance of the AFI in 2002, just one year after García Luna took charge of the organization and around the time, prosecutors say, he allegedly began to receive bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
Reyes Arzate joined the SIU the next year as a member of the Federal Police, rising to the position of SIU commander in 2008, just as the Mérida Initiative was getting underway and not long after a 2007 report from the Justice Department’s Inspector General (OIG) found serious deficiencies in the SIU. Despite hosting one of the largest such organizations in the world, with 184 agents (second only to Colombia), the OIG found that the unit suffered from “inadequate equipment management” and that DEA advisors “did not maintain an inventory of equipment provided to its SIU teams.” Oversight of the Mexico SIU was also substandard, according to the report, which estimated the ratio of DEA Special Agents to SIU members at 1:23, far below the required minimum of 1:15.
Under Mérida, the U.S. poured more money into the troubled unit and maintained confidence that the vetted SIU, under the command of Reyes Arzate, was a secure liaison point for bilateral cooperation on the most sensitive counter-drug investigations. “Activity Descriptions” in the State Department’s “Mexican Security Cooperation Plan” for fiscal year 2008 included $2 million for upgrading the vetted units associated with the PGR and SSP, noting that “expanded information sharing” was “a key component” of the program. Another $5 million was set aside to “stand up” a “robust polygraph program” at several Mexican federal agencies, including the SSP. An inventory of equipment and training to be delivered to Mexico for 2009 and 2010 included “clandestine laboratory equipment and “special investigative courses” for SIU agents at the DEA Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. An August 2009 cable published by Wikileaks indicates that Reyes Arzate was among five SIU officers cleared of involvement in “gross human rights violations” so that they could attend the DEA’s “Advanced SIU Course” in Aruba.
Less than two years later, the SIU sparked one of Mexico’s bloodiest cartel killing sprees. A groundbreaking 2017 investigation from ProPublica found evidence that the SIU had passed key information about sensitive DEA cell-phone-tracking efforts to the leaders of the Zetas criminal group, triggering a three-day cartel sweep through Allende, Coahuila—a wave of retribution that reportedly left hundreds dead in March 2011. A separate report from ProPublica found a similar pattern in a case from April 2010, where an SIU leak is said to have prompted the disappearances (and presumed deaths) of four innocent civilians staying at a hotel being used by SIU members to surveil a top Zetas leader.
Another four years would pass before U.S. law enforcement realized that its most trusted intelligence liaison was part of an alleged “conspiracy to corruptly impede a U.S.-based narcotics investigation.” Meanwhile, the State Department continued to tout the Mérida Initiative’s accomplishments. A 2013 review of the Initiative’s Pillar II programs, dedicated to the “Development of an Institutionalized Capacity to Sustain the Rule of Law,” highlighted “important advances” that included “developing trustworthy institutions, advancing judicial reforms and crime laboratory development, and training all levels of justice sector personnel.” The report pointed to “measurable results” in the ability of internal control units to “detect and deter corruption” and to “contribute to building a culture of lawfulness in Mexico.”
The fact that García Luna and Reyes Arzate are now in custody may represent a victory for the U.S. Justice Department, but it also exposes the failure of one of Mérida’s key pillars: “The Development of Trustworthy Institutions.” At the highest and most important levels, Control de Confianza, the linchpin of the Mérida Initiative, was an utter failure. The false confidence that the beefed-up vetting program instilled in U.S. officials cleared the way for the funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars into the hands of officials who now stand accused of lining their pockets with the ill-gotten profits of the very groups they were supposed to combat.
Now, one year since García Luna’s arrest, Mexico has signaled that it would like the U.S. to return him for prosecution in Mexico. To do so following the release of Gen. Cienfuegos, and after the DEA spent years building ironclad cases against them, would seem to be another embarrassing setback for the architects of Mérida.