“Socalj” for Borderland Beat

From an Investigation by the New York Times

American law enforcement officials spent years looking into allegations that allies of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, met with and took millions of dollars from drug cartels after he took office, according to US records and three people familiar with the matter.

The inquiry, which has not been previously reported, uncovered information pointing to potential links between powerful cartel operatives and Mexican advisers and officials close to the president while he governed the country.

But the United States never opened a formal investigation into Mr. López Obrador, and the officials involved ultimately shelved the inquiry. They concluded that the US government had little appetite to pursue allegations against the leader of one of America’s top allies, said the three people familiar with the case, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

While the recent efforts by the US officials identified possible ties between the cartels and López Obrador’s associates, they did not find any direct connections between the president himself and criminal organizations. “There is no investigation into President López Obrador,” a spokesperson for the Justice Department said.

“The Justice Department has a responsibility to review any allegation.”

New York Times Investigation

During the morning conference on Thursday, February 22, president AMLO revealed that Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, his coordinator of Social Communication, received a letter from Natalie Kitroeff, who wrote the article alongside Alan Feuer, with, as AMLO called it, a “threatening tone. ”

“I want to inform you that we are working on a report about an investigation carried out by the United States government during the six-year term of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, different from the DEA investigation that was made public a few weeks ago and that only analyzed his campaign of 2006. We hereby request your comments on the report. We have until 5:00 p.m. today, February 21, to include it in the article,” the letter from the New York Times said.

Natalie Kitroeff is in charge of the New York Times bureau in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. She was a winner of a 2021 Polk Award and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize after her investigation into the assassination of the president of Haiti.

During AMLO’s response to the letter and accusations, the Mexican President doxed the personal phone number of Kitroeff.

He said that Kitroeff sent a series of questions about the alleged delivery of money from the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas to his collaborators and even his own children. Then, he proceeded to read the document, answered the questions listed, and even read in the middle of the press conference, the telephone number that the journalist provided to send his comments.“A few weeks ago they accused ProPublica of not having asked the Presidency for its position (something that was false). Now they complain that NYT does ask them for comment. What they don’t like is journalism. The president didn’t just show Natalie Kitroeff’s phone number. HE READ IT OUT LOUD. The president doxing a journalist. What a miserable guy. Their anger and desperation is evident,” the activist and director of the Network in Defense of Digital Rights (R3D), Luis Fernando García, wrote in his X account.

The National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data (INAI) reported that it initiated an investigation to establish whether “the Presidency violated its duties. Established in the General Law on Protection of Personal Data Held by Obligated Subjects (LGPDPPSO)” for releasing the journalist’s personal information.

“El Mayo” Connection

Much of the information collected by US officials came from informants whose accounts can be difficult to corroborate and sometimes end up being incorrect. The investigators obtained the information while looking into the activities of drug cartels, and it was not clear how much of what the informants told them was independently confirmed.

For example, records show that the investigators were told by an informant that one of López Obrador’s closest confidants met with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, a top leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, before his victory in the 2018 presidential election.

Los Zetas Bribery Allegation

A different source told them that after the president was elected, a [former] leader of the notoriously violent Los Zetas cartel paid $4 million to two of López Obrador’s allies in the hope of being released from prison. 

Journalist Carlos Loret de Mola announced statements by Celso Ortega, alleged leader of Los Ardillos, a criminal group that has spread terror and violence in Guerrero. In a brief interview, Ortega revealed that for the 2006 presidential campaign López Obrador also allegedly received money from Los Zetas, specifically from Omar Treviño Morales.

“When I was in Michoacán, upon the arrival of the “Z-42” he sent me to bring him and told me that I had to come to do politics in my region for Andrés Manuel López Obrador because they [Los Zetas] were paying for the presidential campaign of López Obrador for the PRD […] once AMLO won, the entire country belonged to Los Zetas,” he declared.

Omar’s brother, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as “Z-40” has also been imprisoned in Mexico since his arrest in 2013. Unlike dozens of other cartel figures who have been extradited to the US since that time, Miguel has been linked to escape plots, threats to the prison director who was killed, and judges. Recently, as possible hearings regarding his extradition, authorities claimed he could not be found in the federal prison system, but recently, his amparo filed to protect his extradition was denied.

Meeting “El Chapo’s” Mom

Investigators obtained information from a third source suggesting that drug cartels had videos of the president’s sons picking up drug money, records show.
The US law enforcement officers also independently tracked payments from people they believed to be cartel operatives to intermediaries for López Obrador, two of the people familiar with the inquiry said.

At least one of those payments, they said, was made around the same time that Mr. López Obrador traveled to the state of Sinaloa in 2020 and met the mother of the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo” who is now serving a life sentence in a US federal prison.

2006 Campaign Allegations

Last month’s media reports, including one by ProPublica, about a US inquiry into 2006 campaign donations of which he did not win the election, ignited a firestorm in Mexico.

More than a decade ago, a separate investigation led by the DEA unearthed allegations that traffickers had donated millions to Mr. López Obrador’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2006. This inquiry, detailed by three media outlets last month, was closed by the US without charges being brought.

Mr. López Obrador publicly denounced the stories, implying they were aimed at influencing the country’s presidential election in June, in which his protégé, the former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, is leading the race to replace him. He suggested the reports could complicate talks on migration and fentanyl with the U.S. government, and said he considered not receiving President Biden’s homeland security adviser for a planned meeting in the Mexican capital.

“How are we going to be sitting at the table talking about the fight against drugs if they, or one of their institutions, is leaking information and harming me?” Mr. López Obrador said at a regular news conference days after the stories were published.

After President Biden called Mr. López Obrador, calming tensions, the Mexican foreign minister said that the US homeland security adviser told Mexico “that this is a closed issue for them.”

The Biden administration has an enormous stake in managing its relationship with Mr. López Obrador, who is seen as indispensable to contain a surge in migration that has become one of the most contentious issues in American politics. It is a major concern for voters in the lead-up to the presidential election this fall.

Mexico is also the top American trading partner following a decline in trade with China over political and economic issues. Mexico is also the single most important collaborator in US efforts to slow illicit drugs like fentanyl from crossing the southern border.

AMLO’s Response

López Obrador denied all the allegations made by the informants. AMLO rejected the accusations against him and assured that it is false information, given that the corresponding proof and evidence of the alleged payments that his collaborators (whose identity is unknown) received from drug trafficking have not been presented.

Despite this, López Obrador indicated that this would not affect the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

“We are obliged to maintain good relations with the United States government because we are partners, the main economic commercial partners, because we have a neighborhood, a border of 3,180 kilometers because 40 million Mexicans live there and because politics was invented among other things to avoid confrontation. Of course, we are going to continue maintaining a good relationship,” he stated.

White House Response

The White House clarified today that it is not investigating President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for his alleged ties to drug trafficking during his 2018 presidential campaign.

“As it seems to me that the Department of Justice has made clear, President López Obrador is not being investigated. It would be the responsibility of the Department of Justice to review any allegations,” John Kirby said.

While efforts to scrutinize Mr. López Obrador’s allies are no longer active, the revelation that US law enforcement officials were quietly examining corruption allegations against them could itself be damaging.
The Biden administration has handled Mr. López Obrador with great care, avoiding public criticism in favor of repeatedly dispatching top officials to Mexico City to meet with him and press for sustained migration enforcement in private.

The decision to let the recent inquiry go dormant, the people familiar with it said, was caused in large part by the breakdown of a separate, highly contentious corruption case. In the closing months of the Trump administration in 2020, US officials brought charges against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served as Mexico’s defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.

US Prosecution of Political Figures

US law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction to investigate and bring charges against officials of other countries if they can show a connection to narcotics moving across the border into the United States.
While it is uncommon for American DEA agents to pursue top foreign officials, it is not unprecedented: The drug trial of Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras, began this week in Federal District Court in Manhattan. It is alleged that at least $1 million was paid to the Central American President by “El Chapo.”
Federal prosecutors in New York also secured a corruption conviction last year against Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former public security secretary, persuading a jury that he had taken millions of dollars in bribes from violent cartels he was meant to be pursuing.
For the United States, pursuing criminal charges against top foreign officials is a rare and complicated undertaking. Building a legal case against Mr. López Obrador would be particularly challenging. The last time the United States filed criminal charges against a top Mexican official, it ultimately dropped them after his arrest caused a diplomatic rift with Mexico.
In a federal indictment, unsealed in New York after a multiyear investigation named “Operation Padrino,” prosecutors accused General Cienfuegos of using the powers of his office to help a violent criminal group called the H-2 Cartel to conduct its drug trafficking operations.

His arrest at the Los Angeles airport provoked a furor within the Mexican government, particularly among the leaders of the country’s armed forces, which have assumed greater responsibilities and power under Mr. López Obrador.

The president said the charges were “fabricated” and his administration released more than 700 pages of communications intercepted by U.S. agents that purported to show criminal activity but were cast as inconclusive.

The DEA, which already had a checkered history as a protagonist in a drug war seen as bloody and futile, suffered a tremendous blow to its relationship with the Mexican government.

Just weeks after the arrest took place, the US Justice Department, under heavy pressure from Mr. López Obrador, reversed itself and dismissed the indictment, sending General Cienfuegos back to Mexico.

The episode not only damaged longtime security arrangements between the two countries but also left a deep impression on law enforcement officers north of the border, many of whom saw the failed case as a cautionary tale about undertaking similar efforts against other high-ranking Mexican officials.