The latest setback to US counter-narcotics efforts in Mexico came earlier this month, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was forced to withdraw its flagship aircraft from the country for the first time in some 30 years.
According to a Reuters report, Mexican officials revoked parking space for the plane in a hangar at Toluca airport about 25 miles outside of Mexico City. The plane, a Beechcraft twin-turboprop King Air, can carry around ten passengers and has often been deployed for elite operations in Mexico and Central America.
Before being kicked out of Mexican soil and transferred to Texas, the King Air had “played a key role in capturing some of the world’s most powerful drug lords and was used in raids against the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman,” Reuters wrote.
Mike Vigil, the former head of the DEA’s international bureau, told The Daily Beast that the aircraft was a vital tool for “operations requiring the rapid movement of personnel and equipment.” It also allowed agents to avoid traversing cartel conflict zones. [and] supported all DEA offices throughout Mexico.
Vigil added that the loss of the plane will “hinder initiatives and place agents in unnecessary danger,” and described an incident during his tenure in Mexico in which the plane was used to transport DEA agents to Colima State for a raid on meth labs. belonging to the Colima cartel. “The aircraft was used to swoop down on El Chapo’s clandestine labs and hideouts. This was critical to the success of tactical operations,” he said.
The move comes at a time when relations between the DEA and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, often known by the nickname AMLO, are increasingly strained. In a speech on May 12, the day after news of the plane’s forced exit from the country was announced, AMLO said his administration “looked after” cartel members just as it did soldiers in the forces. national armies, because criminals “are also human beings.
The DEA’s Vigil also pointed out that populist President AMLO has a reputation for obstructing US law enforcement programs in Mexico as part of his “Abrazos no Balazos.” [“Hugs not Bullets”] campaign, which aims to take a softer approach than its predecessors to organized crime.
“The first three years of President Lopez Obrador’s administration were disastrous for the DEA. He imposed limits on the agency’s activities, eliminated the sensitive investigative unit, dismantled the Mérida plan and now the most recent hit involving the DEA plane,” said Vigil, who added that AMLO had also denied the diplomatic immunity of US agents.
A federal law enforcement official in Mexico who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast only on the condition of anonymity, said that before AMLO “it was very different because there was a lot of interaction between the states United States and Mexico There was great cooperation in anti-drug efforts.
But everything changed under AMLO, the official said. “There was a rupture because the United States no longer has confidence in Mexico. We no longer have a functioning government in Mexico… The current administration operates with a huge ego.
Bilateral security cooperation deteriorated further after the arrest of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles in October 2020 for conspiracy with the H-2 cartel. Around this time, Mexico threatened to expel DEA agents from the country, which ultimately led to Cienfuegos being released and the charges against him being dropped. But the damage was done, and AMLO then imposed a series of reforms that limited the DEA’s freedoms, including a law requiring them to share all information with Mexican law enforcement.
The AMLO administration had also curtailed the DEA’s use of the plane in Toluca even before canceling its parking space, and began requiring written requests two weeks before any flights.
“These restrictions had already made it impossible to complete missions that required speed and flexibility,” Vigil said. “You can’t know when you’ll need to provide immediate tactical support weeks in advance.”
Vigil also said restrictions on Mexican airspace, combined with the extra distance to fly from Texas, meant that DEA operations were essentially halted as parts of Mexico remain inaccessible by car.
“Warring cartels operating in many Mexican states are setting up roadblocks on major highways, making travel by road impossible. The Mexican security forces offer no protection to the agents, which makes the situation worse,” he said.
Dr. Robert J. Bunker, director of research at C/O Futures LLC, a U.S.-based security consultancy, said in an email that the DEA’s Toluca-based plane had been “politically symbol of cooperation between Mexico and the United States in the fight against narcotics”. and referred to the revoking of the plane’s hangar privileges as a sign that the DEA’s role is being “gradually reduced” in Mexico.
“I would expect we would see additional moves like this during the rest of AMLO [term] as he pursues his populist politics,” he said. AMLO’s anti-DEA strategy is to “try to promote the narrative of Mexico’s dignity – the DEA’s activities are an attack on state sovereignty and the fact that Mexico has been forced into war against drugs through [former president Felipe] Calderón under pressure from the United States.
Such rhetoric must be a delight to high-ranking traffickers who are probably “thrilled because it has allowed them to become more powerful and expand their operations in virtually every Mexican state.” [AMLO’s position] is one of the reasons the United States is inundated with deadly drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine,” Vigil said.
Bunker agreed, saying the “hugs” rhetoric is much better for [capos] than arresting or killing teams sent after them, so they must be loving AMLO more and more at this point.