Days after the Mexican government passed a crippling set of restrictions on foreign law enforcement operations in the country, the Trump administration is seeking an alternative and revisiting a decades-old bilateral deal in an attempt to untie the hands of US drug investigators.
The law, which was hastily passed by the Mexican legislature last month amid the fallout from the arrest of the country’s former defense chief on charges of US drug trafficking, has raised serious concern at the Department of Justice. Justice, where investigations into the powerful drug cartels in Mexico have been jeopardized by new requirements for agents to share intelligence with the country’s government.
His arrival, in the final weeks of a lame US presidency, has also complicated efforts to find a way forward, with the issue likely to fall into the knees of the Biden administration as one of its first international challenges.
According to a law enforcement official familiar with the situation, one of the remedies investigated by outgoing Trump administration officials is the enduring influence of the Brownsville Letter, a 1998 document signed after a conflict of similar sovereignty by the Attorney General of the Clinton era, Janet Reno and her Mexican counterpart. which describes how investigations between the two countries are to be conducted.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau has discussed the matter with the Mexican government, the official said, although as someone appointed by Trump, his tenure as a key negotiator is likely coming to an end.
While it is not yet clear how well Mexico City will enforce each piece of the law, transition officials working for the new Biden administration are already considering strategies, said Shannon O’Neil, an expert in the region. at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The question is how this is going to work in practice and that’s what we don’t know yet,” O’Neil said of the law.
“The identity of [informants] was to be closely watched by US agents working in Mexico. They could not share this information with Mexican officials because the confidential source could end up dying.“
Among the transition officials working on the issue is Roberta Jacobson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018 and was announced in November as a member of the agency’s review team. state department of transition.
A long-time respected diplomat who helped shape the relationship between the two countries from several high-level State Department positions, Jacobson’s vision for Mexico’s political leadership and his involvement in shaping the accords of Past security cooperation will be invaluable to the new administration, O’Neil said.
“I don’t think any of this surprises her. She will definitely be a thoughtful voice in what can and cannot be done in the relationship and potentially how to find various voices and allies and others to rebuild the security relationship between the United States and Mexico, ”O said. ‘Neil.
In an email, Jacobson declined to comment on the transition’s thinking on the law, as did a transition spokesperson.
At the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. agency with the largest police presence in Mexico, Interim Administrator Timothy Shea told transition officials he was prepared to stay in place for as long as the new administration needed. him, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Biden’s team has yet to develop a shortlist of potential candidates for the DEA role that they float with stakeholders, but is considering proposing a candidate, acknowledging a lack of direction at the agency that does not has not been confirmed by the Senate. leader since 2015, said this person.
Under the new law, Mexican officials must obtain government permission before communicating with foreign law enforcement officials, and foreign officials are required to share information they discover with Mexicans.
This could create administrative slowdowns and dangerous situations for drug officers in Mexico, where corruption and links to drug cartels are rife in government ranks, according to current and former officials.
Gina Parlovecchio, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who led the 2018 trial against infamous cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, said it would have been “extremely difficult” to build her cases if the law had been in place. was in effect at the time.
“It exploded and became a big political problem in Mexico along with traditional concerns about imperialism and interventionism.“
High-level investigations against cartel bosses and corrupt officials often involve informants in the country who trust the United States as to their identity.
“The identity of [informants] was to be closely watched by US agents working in Mexico. They couldn’t share this information with Mexican officials because the confidential source could end up dying, ”said Parlovecchio, now a white-collar defense practice partner at the Mayer Brown law firm.
“This is an absolutely untenable situation,” said former DEA operations chief Michael Braun, pointing to the growing number of overdose deaths in the United States fueled by opioids produced or passed through Mexico by cartels.
Braun, who was successfully selected as the best candidate for the role of administrator under the Trump administration and is seen as a strong option for this go-around by some current agency officials, said the threat of Mexico should have faced uncompromising diplomacy.
“I hope they were in Mexico putting pressure on the flesh and negotiating aggressively with Mexican officials, coordinating with the DOJ and working with the Embassy and the State Department to avoid this situation. “, did he declare.
The reception of the DEA in Mexico has long been tense and marked by escalating episodes of violence, controversial arrests and sanctions.
A massive manhunt in the United States and a near total closure of the border followed the seminal murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by Mexican traffickers in 1985, pushing relations between the two countries. at the lowest.
Five years later, the US-funded operation to kidnap and prosecute a doctor accused of involvement in Camarena’s death gave way to the first round of restrictions on drug agents in the country, including a cap on the number that could operate there and a new information sharing requirement.
The Mérida initiative of 2008 ushered in unprecedented government funding and coordination of law enforcement between the two countries, but security cooperation was curtailed when Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency began.
Brownsville’s letter, the applicability of which is currently being investigated in light of the new law, came two months after U.S. officials infuriated Mexican leaders with the surprise announcement of Operation Casablanca, a 1998 investigation into the drug money laundering that upended the country’s banking system.
Undercover officers in this case, the largest of its kind in U.S. law enforcement history, laundered more than $ 100 million in drug money in a drug-injection operation that resulted in 167 arrests, including several Mexican bank officials.
The operation, managed by the US customs service, had apparently only been notified to Mexican authorities once, in its early stages.
“It exploded and it became a big political problem in Mexico along with the traditional concerns about imperialism and interventionism,” said Jeffrey Davidow, who participated in the negotiations around the Brownsville letter as ambassador. from the United States to Mexico.
Signed at a ceremony in the Texas border town by Reno and then Mexican Attorney General Jorge Madrazo, the letter committed the two countries to “improve communications regarding sensitive cross-border policing activities, in accordance with legal constraints. and security issues ”.
It is not clear whether the Trump administration has determined that the deal could replace the 2020 law or whether it could serve as a baseline if Mexico delays implementation of the new requirements.
A Justice Ministry official declined to comment, but noted that the framework for the letter, which was later adopted in a memorandum, remained functional.
Mexico could also face mounting pressure from Congress and the White House to back down if the United States chooses to take a tough approach.
“There are real differences in the way the Mexican government at the time of Casablanca handled this, looking for a way to fix things, and the way the government today handled it. , which has exacerbated the problem and will lead to new problems, ”Davidow said.
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