On December 15, Mexico lawmakers passed a law reining in the asymmetrical, imperialist influence of the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration within the country. Supporters hailed the move as a reclamation of national sovereignty.
Recommended by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—often referred to as AMLO—in November, the new law creates a novel legal definition for “foreign agents,” which DEA officers would now be considered. This limits their activities in the country to information-gathering, eliminates their legal immunity and assigns them reporting obligations. Agents will no longer be able to unilaterally execute arrests and raids, and will have to seek authorization from the Mexican federal government for their weapons. Permission from a newly formed security panel is also now required of any Mexican state or municipal official meeting with them.
“Today, this legislative power,” said Francisco Javier Huacus Esquivel, a representative in the lower house of Congress and member of the progressive Labor Party, on the day of the vote, “assumes the responsibility of strengthening the legal framework that guarantees a mutual and unconditional cooperation between both countries and, for the first time in decades, Mexico will recover its international sovereignty.”
In a recent letter congratulating US President-elect Joe Biden on his victory, AMLO further put the bill’s anti-imperialist streak on display. “We are certain that, with you as president of the United States, it will be possible to continue applying the basic principles of foreign policy contained in the (Mexican) constitution, especially non-intervention and the right to self-determination,” he wrote.
Drug warriors invested in the global dominance of the DEA have denounced the legislation. A few days before the Senate passed the law, US Attorney William Barr stated he was “troubled” by the legislation, believing it would have “the effect of making cooperation between our countries more difficult” and “the citizens of Mexico and the United States less safe,” while simultaneously benefiting “the violent transnational criminal organizations and other criminals that we are jointly fighting.”
Mexico Senator Ricardo Monreal pointed out Barr’s hypocrisy. “Firstly, it must be said that our northern neighbor has, for decades, regulated the conduct of foreign agents, including Mexican,” he wrote, referring to the United States’ longstanding Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. “In this sense, it is worth asking why the approval of a similar law in our country would hinder bilateral relations, when on the other side of the border [this law] has been in place for decades, without affecting international cooperation.”
AMLO pushed for the national security reform in November as he lobbied for the return of their former Secretary of State Salvador Cienfuegos, once a key player in the country’s drug war, from the US. Cienfuegos was arrested in October on federal trafficking charges in Los Angeles. On November 17, Barr announced that the charges were dismissed as an expression “demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality.” He said the decision reflects the US’s “respect the sovereignty of our nations and their institutions.”
The military, once overseen by Cienfuegos, has played a central role in Mexico’s drug war since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón launched a bloody, militarized campaign aided by the US. Since AMLO took office in 2018, the military has played an increasingly important role in his political projects—from infrastructure construction to COVID-19 responses—despite campaigning against them. Now, with the DEA subordinated, the national security reform likely stands to enhance the military’s influence.
The US drug war agency has operated in Mexico for decades. Legislation like the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act provided the legal grounds for the DEA and US Department of Justice to bring criminal charges against foreign citizens allegedly trafficking drugs into the US. A number of US Supreme Court decisions, meanwhile, ruled that constitutional protections do not apply to US law enforcement activities abroad, such as when the DEA raids a Mexican citizen’s residence without a US warrant.
The national security reform will likely restore Mexico’s power to determine the future of its drug war—something that AMLO vowed to end during his presidential bid two years ago.