Weekly Report - 21 July 2022 (WR-22-29)

US-Mexico relations rocky despite Caro Quintero capture

The capture of Rafael Caro Quintero, the long-pursued founder of the now-defunct Guadalajara drug trafficking organisation (DTO) on 15 July, seemed like the perfect opportunity for Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to tout the success of bilateral security cooperation with the US. However, as López Obrador downplays US involvement in the capture, and the process of extraditing Caro Quintero looks likely to be lengthy, it may well serve as another point of tension between the two governments.

The Mexican navy captured Caro Quintero in San Simón, in the municipality of Choix, in the northern state of Sinaloa. The arrest of the former DTO leader is arguably the most significant to take place under President López Obrador. Although Caro Quintero no longer wields the influence he once did and is not a major actor on the Mexican drug stage, he is a historically important figure who helped drive the expansion of drug trafficking to the US in the 1980s and whose Guadalajara DTO later transformed into the still-dominant Sinaloa DTO.

Caro Quintero’s capture was also of great symbolic significance for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as he was wanted for the 1985 torture and murder of Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, a DEA agent. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for this murder in 1985 but was released 28 years into his sentence on a technicality. A new arrest warrant was soon issued, with the DEA offering a US$20m reward for his capture. After almost 10 years on the run, moving between safe houses and mountain hideouts, the former DTO leader is back behind bars.

The capture appeared to be good news for López Obrador, whose ‘hugs not bullets’ security strategy has been criticised for being soft on DTO leaders. It also seemed like an opportune moment to highlight the strength of US-Mexico security relations, which have appeared rocky since the arrest of Mexico’s former defence minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (2012-2018), in the US in October 2020.

Since then, López Obrador has moved to limit the influence of the DEA in Mexico, amending the National Security Law to limit the presence of “foreign agents”, shuttering a specialised DEA-trained anti-drugs unit and removing a DEA plane stationed in Mexico. Following a meeting with US President Joe Biden last week – which came after López Obrador refused to attend the US-hosted Summit of the Americas in June - the arrest could have been used to symbolise a relationship that was on the mend.

However, this was not the case. In fact, López Obrador used the capture to once again reiterate that Mexico’s relationship with the DEA was “not like before”. In a press conference on 18 July, he stated that the DEA had no direct involvement in the arrest, either in terms of operations or intelligence sharing. Three days earlier the head of the DEA, Anne Milgram, had congratulated “our incredible DEA team in Mexico [which] worked in partnership with Mexican authorities to capture and arrest Rafael Caro Quintero”. The US Department of Justice (DOJ), also said in a statement that the arrest was “the culmination of tireless work by DEA and their Mexican partners”, adding that “there is no hiding place for anyone who kidnaps, tortures and murders American law enforcement”.

The US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, however, stated the arrest was “exclusively conducted” by the Mexican government. Salazar is acutely conscious of the importance López Obrador attaches to protecting “national sovereignty”, the reason for his move to reduce cross-border security cooperation with the US. But it is difficult to imagine, in spite of outwardly strained relations, that there was no cooperation with the DEA, no intelligence sharing, behind the challenging operation in a mountainous area in Sinaloa.

Caro Quintero’s extradition could prove contentious. The US has requested his immediate extradition, keen to convict him on US soil and not wanting to risk another premature release in Mexico. However, an appeal requested by Caro Quintero’s legal team to prevent his immediate extradition was accepted by a district judge in Mexico’s Jalisco state. Caro Quintero will remain in the Altiplano prison in Estado de México (Edomex) while the formal extradition process is carried out. This process can be lengthy, particularly if the defendant is willing to fight it. In the case of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, the former leader of Sinaloa DTO, the process took a year. If this were to happen, it would cause much frustration for US authorities.

Stagnation in fight against femicides

Three months have passed since 18-year-old Debanhi Escobar was found dead in a motel in the northern state of Nuevo León, in a case that shook Mexico [WR-22-17]. In this time, no-one has been found responsible for the killing, and little light has been shed on what took place that night. On 18 July, forensic authorities presented the findings from the third autopsy of Escobar’s body, following contradictory results from two previous autopsies. The case has become representative of Mexico’s inability to tackle femicides, and the mistakes, delays, and technicalities that often prevent such cases from being solved.

It was announced that Escobar had died from asphyxiation. This contradicted the results of the first autopsy, commissioned by Nuevo León’s state attorney general’s office (FGE), which said Escobar had died from bruising to the brain, and appeared to corroborate more closely with the independent autopsy requested by her family, which said Escobar was strangled. The autopsy seemed to prove that Escobar’s death was not accidental, but not much else. It served as another reminder of the contradictions and errors that have epitomised the case.

The lack of progress in Escobar’s case is representative of that in tackling femicides in Mexico. A recent attempt by the supreme court (SCJN) to address rising rates of femicide has become bogged down in technical questions. On 6 July, the SCJN president, Arturo Zaldívar, presented a draft bill to congress for tackling, preventing, and punishing femicides. The proposal focused on establishing better coordination between municipal, state, and federal authorities and developing specific measures for responding to femicides.

While presenting the initiative, Zaldívar explained that he did not have the power to formally do so but was putting forward a working project for the consideration of legislators. However, some legislators stated that Zaldívar had broken constitutional order. Zaldívar lamented that there was more concern over this technicality than finding solutions while women and girls were being killed.

According to a monthly security report presented by President López Obrador on 20 July, 89 femicides were registered in June - the highest monthly figure so far this year. This brings the total number of femicides committed so far in 2022 to 493, an 8.7% decrease on the 536 recorded in the first half of 2021.

Violence in Mexico

Persistent high levels of violent crime in Mexico continue to spark criticism of the government’s security strategy, which focuses on addressing the root causes of crime. Most recently, the Catholic church called on President López Obrador to revise his “failing” strategy after the murder of two Jesuit priests in Chihuahua at the hands of cartel members. The public are also feeling the impact of Mexico’s violent crime rates. Mexico’s national statistics institute (Inegi) found that 67.4% of those living in Mexican cities felt unsafe in its most recent urban security survey, released on 19 July.

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