The Godfather Returns Home: An Act of U.S.-Mexico Diplomacy Complicates the Fight Against Drug Cartels

On October 15,  General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, former Mexican National Defense  Minister under President Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018,  was detained at the Los Angeles International Airport. Though the United States government later dropped the charges against Zepeda, his detention engendered disastrous, long-term implications for the U.S.-Mexico war on drugs. 

Zepeda was arrested on four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. He was accused of working as a part of the H-2, or the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, under the alias “El Padrino” or “The Godfather.” According to prosecutors, Zepeda warned cartel members about U.S. investigations and took protection moneydirecting military operations toward H-2 rivalswhile serving under President Nieto. Prosecutors also say he introduced H-2 cartel leaders to government officials willing to sell information. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The H-2 cartel was found in 2008. It has been accused of trafficking hundreds of firearms and shipping cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Members split from the Sinaloa cartel run by Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Direct testimony from Guzmán during his New York trial implicated Zepeda.

Zepeda was detained for one month before former U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Manero issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. Department of Justice dismissed all charges with the intention that Mexican law enforcement investigate and, if deemed apt, charge Zepeda. Then, he was returned to Mexico, according to Barr, “in recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality.” 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, evidence of Zepeda’s involvement in criminal activities has been provided to Mexican government officials. An investigation is currently ongoing. However, it will ultimately be the Mexican Attorney General who will decide whether or not Zepeda gets charged. There is currently no warrant for his arrest.

Zepeda is the highest-ranking Mexican security official to be arrested on drug trafficking charges since 2019. In December, Genaro García Luna, former Public Security Secretary under President Felipe Calderón from 2006 to 2012, was accused of taking millions of dollars in protection money from El Chapo.

In Mexico, the arrest of Zepeda and Luna tarnished the Mexican military’s image as an anti-cartel establishment. Previously, as soldiers helped with infrastructure projects and distributed medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, the military had been viewed in a largely favorable light. 

The Secretary of Defense is in charge of deploying soldiers to regions overrun by crime. Notably, Zepeda is the first in his role to be arrested. Prior to his arrest, he was viewed as a key player in the U.S.-Mexico war on drugs. In 2017, a law authorizing military involvement in domestic law enforcement activities cemented his role in the war on drugs, despite various protests from UN-affiliated humanitarian groups about soldiers perpetuating extrajudicial killings or using excessive force. That same year, the U.S. Department of Defense even awarded Zepeda a William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was reportedly upset because he was not pre-informed about the arrest by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As a result, he sent a national security bill to Mexico’s Congress that required foreign officials, including DEA agents, to share intelligence gathered in Mexico with the Mexican government. The law also stripped said officials of diplomatic immunity. On December 15, legislators approved that law. 

Critics maintain that the law will lead to corrupt government officials leaking information to criminal groups, complicating the war on drugs. Indeed, the law was probably what U.S. officials had been trying to avoid in returning Zepeda. In December, Barr released a statement saying the law would “benefit the violent transnational criminal organisations and other criminals that [the U.S. and Mexico] are jointly fighting.” 

Unfortunately, it appears as if U.S. officials detained Zepeda too quickly, without warning their Mexican counterparts, and released him too late. Perhaps Obrador sent the bill to re-write U.S.-Mexico relations in preparation for a new administration.

December’s events will impact how President-elect Joe Biden addresses the U.S.-Mexico war on drugs. A more human-rights based approach, in line with base democratic values, would most certainly run contrary to past actions. After all, the United States’ release of Zepeda had basically guaranteed his freedom. If the war on drugs is to continue, compromises will have to be made by both administrations.