Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post - Big drug bust falls apart, embarrassing US and Mexico

Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post
Big drug bust falls apart, embarrassing US and Mexico


Think about poor Bill Barr’s predicament. It’s just weeks before Election Day, and his boss, the president, is giving his Attorney General Hell because at least three separate Justice Department investigations have turned up nothing seriously wrong with the way the FBI looked at Trump’s campaign’s romances with Russian intelligence operatives, certainly nothing that will help Trump’s reelection.

So what else might Justice give him that will make the Orange-faced devil smile? Eureka! How about the biggest Mexican drug arrest ever? Ya think The Donald might like that? Let me spell it out. Mexicans. Drugs. Biggest bust ever!  

It’s a wonder Trump didn’t announce it with Barr descending two escalator steps behind him at Trump Tower, a reenactment, a reification, of his anti-Mexican “I’m running for President” announcement.

Too bad, before he gave the order to have the former Defense Minister of Mexico, General Salvador Cienfuegos arrested on arrival at Los Angeles Airport, on October 15, less than three weeks before Election Day, Attorney General Barr didn’t ask himself that three-word question … “And then what?” 

The charges against General Cienfuegos were serious – that as Defense Minister under former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto, he had protected one drug cartel by using the military to attack its rivals, and to facilitate distribution of heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines to the United States. And, according to prosecutors, everything was well documented, in part through messages intercepted from a BlackBerry associated with the general.

The backlash from Mexico was even more serious. From President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador down – through the top ranks of Mexican politics and the Mexican military there was outrage. Secretly investigating a former Defense Minister was affronting enough, but then publicizing his arrest. And then there were the defensive questions – Who else might be under American investigation? Who else might have had their communications secretly surveilled? 

If the general wasn’t released and the charges dropped, it was suggested, DEA agents might be forced to leave Mexico, all cooperation on combating drugs, not to mention a list of other crimes and security issues, might end.

At the DEA and FBI and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State there was a collective “Yikes!”

And on November 17, two weeks after Election Day, the Justice Department reversed course, dropping the charges and sending General Cienfuegos back home. 

And then what? Well, things have gotten worse. In the first place, the Mexicans have shown no intention to pursue the American case against the general and the Mexican Congress has passed a new law that effectively fulfills the threats made before Barr caved, setting rules for Mexican-American collaboration on security and crime-fighting that could cripple it.

This incident may make Attorney General Barr look bad, but dig a little deeper, and it’s full of elements that make Mexico look worse…and nobody has been digger deeper into the “rule of law” problems in Mexico than our guest Marty Beth Sheridan, Mexico City-based correspondent for the Washington Post. Her recent series of reports is entitled “Losing Control.”



Mary Beth Sheridan is a correspondent covering Mexico and Central America for The Washington Post. She came to The Post in 2001 after 11 years as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times. During her career, she has been based in Rome; Bogota Colombia; and Mexico City. Her previous assignments for The Post include covering diplomacy, homeland security and immigration. She served as deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018. Her honors and awards include the Overseas Press Club Robert Spiers Benjamin Award for Latin America coverage, 1998; a Nieman Fellowship, Harvard University, 2012-13 and a Knight-Bagehot Fellowship, Columbia University, 1992-93. Sheridan was part of a Washington Post team named as finalists for Pulitzer Prize for reporting on terrorism post-9/11.



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