Politics: General’s arrest unmasks major problems

MEXICO - Report 26 Oct 2020 by Guillermo Valdes and Francisco González

The October 15 arrest of Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles hit Mexico like a bombshell. He has been indicted on various drug trafficking-related counts corresponding to his time as defense minister throughout the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto.

The news of Cienfuegos’s arrest was as much a shock to the public as to the government; it is very likely that not even President Andres Manuel López Obrador had been forewarned. It also raises questions about the future of the bilateral cooperation long seen as essential to the success of the fight against drug trafficking. AMLO’s immediate response was to threaten to dismiss all officers found to have worked closely with Cienfuegos, a massive purge given the connections the retired general had developed during his extensive 54-year career. Presumably conscious of how dependent on the military he has become and how great are the tensions that have mounted within the armed forces, within hours he said Mexico must wait to see how the case plays out.

There are also major implications for the armed forces and their role in Mexico society. Traditionally the Army has received high marks from the population, being viewed as immune to the pervasive corruption afflicting the country’s institutions and for playing an important role in disaster relief efforts. General Cienfuegos's case may significantly tarnish the image of a military that the public has generally held in high esteem and regarded as the least corruptible of the major institutions in Mexico. It will also stoke tensions within an Army that has been divided between a Cienfuegos-led camp that eagerly embraced the greatly expanded role the current administration handed it, and those who argued it was a grave mistake to try to take charge of public security and other major civilian tasks, something they predicted would undermine the armed forces and make them more susceptible to corruption.

This is no minor problem for AMLO, who has justified handing the Army and Navy all manner of responsibilities with the argument that they are free from corruption. And his dependence on the generals will make it all the harder for him to use this opportunity to reconsider the role of the armed forces and that institution’s relationship with civilian authorities.

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