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U.S.-Mexico Efforts Targeting Drug Cartels Have Unraveled, Top DEA Official Says

May 3, 2021
Originally published on May 3, 2021 7:51 pm

Updated May 3, 2021 at 9:51 PM ET

A senior Drug Enforcement Administration official told NPR efforts to target drug cartels operating inside Mexico have unraveled because of a breakdown in cooperation between law enforcement agencies and militaries in the two countries.

"We're willing to share [intelligence] with our counterparts in Mexico, but they themselves are too afraid to even engage with us because of repercussions from their own government if they get caught working with DEA," said Matthew Donahue, the DEA's deputy chief of operations.

The collapse of joint drug interdiction efforts has occurred at a time when cartels are manufacturing huge quantities of fentanyl and methamphetamines in illegal labs inside Mexico.

U.S. officials say those illicit drugs are being smuggled into communities across the United States, driving an explosion in overdose deaths that took more than 90,000 American lives last year.

"It's essential that we get [Mexico's] cooperation for the safety of American citizens as well as to stem the flow of violence in Mexico," Donahue said. "We would hope they'd want to sit down at the table and work bilaterally."

In an exclusive interview with NPR, Donahue described the current situation as a national security crisis.

"It's a national health threat, it's a national safety threat," he said, adding that drug gangs and criminal organizations now operate inside Mexico with impunity. "They do not fear any kind of law enforcement ... or military inside of Mexico right now."

According to Donahue, drug interdiction cooperation between the two countries eroded over the last two years when the DEA began to experience a "lack of engagement" on the part of Mexican agencies.

Other experts on U.S.-Mexico relations told NPR a major blow to the partnership came last October when U.S. agents in California did something unprecedented: arresting retired Gen. and former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.

The U.S. accused Cienfuegos of working for one of Mexico's deadliest cartels, the H2, part of the Beltrán-Leyva trafficking organization. Under pressure from Mexico, then-Attorney General William Barr backpedaled, dropping all charges and releasing Cienfuegos, but experts said the diplomatic damage was done.

"Operations have pretty much been paralyzed basically," said Falko Ernst, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Mexico City. "So what the U.S. had built up in terms of good relationships with parts of the Mexican state have pretty much been gone."

There was already a high level of suspicion between the two countries before the Cienfuegos arrest. But the U.S. was able to target drug cartels inside Mexico with the help of a handful of agencies within the Mexican military and police.

"They captured many, many, many of these drug trafficking operational heads and midlevel guys, cooperating with special units in the police, special units in the marines and parts of the [Mexican] attorney general's office," said Steven Dudley, an expert on drug interdiction with a think tank called InSight Crime.

Now according to experts in the U.S., those fragile links are broken.

In response to the Cienfuegos arrest, Mexican lawmakers approved a measure sharply restricting U.S. drug operations inside Mexico.

The law also required Mexican officials to begin sharing any intelligence the U.S. provides about the cartels with other agencies, including agencies the U.S. doesn't trust. As a result, joint investigations ground to a halt.

The Mexican government declined NPR's requests for interviews for this story, nor did it reply to questions submitted to multiple agencies within the Mexican government.

This diplomatic row comes at a moment when the Biden administration is also dealing with an escalation in the number of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

During a conference call with reporters last month, Regina LaBelle, acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told NPR that drug interdiction efforts would be on the agenda soon for talks with Mexico.

"I can say right now there is ongoing cooperation [between the two countries], but that's certainly going to be the subject of ongoing negotiations in the near future," LaBelle said.

Donahue too said he hoped joint operations targeting the cartels could be restored: "We would prefer to sit down at the table to work with the Mexican authorities," he told NPR.

But Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, an expert on organized crime and U.S.-Mexico security cooperation at the University of California, San Diego, told NPR restoring trust and cooperation won't be easy. She noted Mexican officials are focused on domestic politics with midterm elections coming next month.

"It's my expectation is that there's not going to be a lot of attention to what the U.S. would like to do and how to enhance that cooperation," she told NPR.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, has voiced skepticism of the old drug war model that targeted cartel kingpins.

While that strategy led to arrests of high-level traffickers and produced splashy headlines, critics in the U.S. and Mexico said it never significantly slowed the flow of drugs into the United States.

Carrie Kahn, NPR's international correspondent based in Mexico City, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A top official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tells NPR efforts to target drug cartels in Mexico have unraveled. The culprit is a diplomatic route that's frozen joint investigations and intelligence sharing between the two countries. This comes at a time when cartels are shipping more and more fentanyl into the U.S., driving a record spike in overdose deaths. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Last year overdose deaths in the U.S. surged in a way no one's ever seen, killing more than 90,000 Americans. Matthew Donahue is head of operations for the DEA, which means he directs U.S. efforts to curb drug trafficking around the world. He says illegal labs run by cartels in Mexico are the major source of fentanyl and methamphetamines driving the epidemic.

MATTHEW DONAHUE: It's a crisis. It's a national security crisis. It's a national health threat, national safety threat.

MANN: But Donahue says efforts to fight drug cartels and target their operations inside Mexico have broken down because of a collapse in trust and cooperation between law enforcement and militaries in the two countries.

DONAHUE: We're willing to share with our counterparts in Mexico, but they themselves are too afraid to even engage with us because of repercussions from their own government if they get caught working with the DEA.

MANN: The crisis began last October, when federal agents in California did something unprecedented.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: An unusual arrest at LAX last night. The DEA arrested one of Mexico's top generals, Salvador Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos was arrested on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

MANN: That report from CBS News. Cienfuegos was also Mexico's former defense secretary. Without first notifying their Mexican counterparts, the DEA detained Cienfuegos, accusing him of working for one of Mexico's deadliest cartels. Under pressure from Mexico, then-Attorney General William Barr backpedaled, dropping all charges and releasing Cienfuegos. But experts say the diplomatic damage was done.

FALKO ERNST: There's always been a very high level of mistrust between both sides, right?

MANN: Ernst Falko (ph) is an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Mexico City. Before Cienfuegos' arrest, he says, U.S. law enforcement was able to target drug cartels inside Mexico with the help of a handful of trusted elements within the Mexican military and police. Now Falko says even those fragile links are broken.

ERNST: Operations there have pretty much been paralyzed, basically. So what the U.S. has built up in terms of good relationships with the parts of the Mexican state have pretty much gone.

MANN: In response to the Cienfuegos arrest, Mexican lawmakers approved a measure sharply restricting U.S. drug operations inside Mexico. The law also requires Mexican officials to share any intel the U.S. provides about the cartels with other agencies, including agencies the U.S. doesn't trust. As a result, information sharing and joint investigations ground to a halt. The Mexican government declined NPR's requests for interviews for this story, nor did they reply to questions submitted to multiple agencies within the Mexican government. The DEA's Matthew Donahue says the winners in all this are the drug cartels.

DONAHUE: They do not fear any kind of law enforcement inside - or military inside Mexico right now.

MANN: Sources in the U.S. tell NPR this breakdown makes it harder to track fentanyl shipments and other drugs as they cross the border, bound for cities and small towns across the U.S. This comes at a moment when the Biden administration is dealing with an escalation in the number of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border while also scrambling to stem an overdose crisis that's killing 240 Americans a day. A White House official told NPR drug interdiction will be the subject of talks between the two countries soon. But Cecilia Farfan-Mendez, an expert on U.S.-Mexico security cooperation at UC San Diego, says restoring trust and cooperation won't be easy, especially with Mexican officials focused on elections next month.

CECILIA FARFAN-MENDEZ: With the elections coming up, it's - my expectation is that there's not going to be a lot of attention to what the U.S. would like to do and how to enhance that cooperation.

MANN: Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has also voiced skepticism of the old drug war model that targeted cartel kingpins. While that strategy led to arrests of high-level traffickers and produced splashy headlines, critics in the U.S. and Mexico say it never significantly slowed the flow of drugs into the U.S.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BJORK SONG, "PAGAN POETRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.