Mexico’s ‘Trial of the Century’
What a New York court case revealed about the war on drugs.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A U.S. jury convicts a former Mexican official of drug trafficking offenses, Peru’s ongoing protests amplify conversations about racism and Indigenous identity, and the region revels in Carnival.
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Playing Both Sides
In 2006, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on the country’s drug gangs. He mobilized security forces against the groups, and in 2008, the U.S. government began supporting Calderón’s efforts to the tune of more than $3 billion. Washington hoped to stem the northward flow of narcotics and worked closely with Mexican officials tasked with retraining and better equipping Mexico’s police. Chief among them was Calderón’s secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna.
In 2012, the year García Luna retired from his position, he received an award from the CIA for his “friendship, collaboration, and support.” But the FBI arrested García Luna in 2019 on charges of collaboration with drug traffickers, and on Tuesday, a jury in New York convicted García Luna of five criminal offenses, including a conspiracy that involved taking millions of dollars in bribes from Mexico’s biggest cartel to help it move cocaine into the United States.
For Mexicans, García Luna’s case seemed like the “trial of the century,” news site Expansión’s editor Mariel Ibarra said on the podcast Política y Otros Datos early this month. Even with a clear verdict, the case continues to raise major questions about the U.S.-Mexico war on drugs, including how much—and when—officials from both countries knew about suspicions of García Luna’s corruption.
Cuban Mexican investigative journalist Peniley Ramírez has covered García Luna for a decade and co-hosts the podcast USA v. García Luna. According to her reporting, Mexican army officials who suspected García Luna’s involvement with traffickers warned both Calderón and his interior secretary about their concerns around the time Calderón took office. Until then, García Luna had led Mexico’s federal investigations agency.
A former Mexican attorney general for the state of Nayarit who served as a witness in the New York case—and had himself been convicted of drug trafficking—mentioned Calderón in testimony on Feb. 7. He said that in 2011, Nayarit’s governor told him that Calderón and García Luna had ordered Nayarit’s leadership to protect the group of drug traffickers led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Calderón called the testimony an “absolute lie” and, after Tuesday’s verdict, released a lengthy statement via Twitter that denied involvement in any crimes.
Former Mexican federal police officer Javier Herrera Valles told Ramírez that he met with employees of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico in 2008 to share suspicions of García Luna’s involvement with traffickers and was told that U.S. officials were already investigating García Luna. A week after that meeting, Herrera Valles was arrested and imprisoned for four years on charges of drug trafficking that were later dropped.
ProPublica reported that in 2013, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had urged DEA investigators to pursue an indictment against García Luna based on evidence of his alliance with traffickers, but U.S. federal prosecutors repeatedly rejected the evidence as insufficient.
Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the last year of García Luna’s tenure, testified at the trial that he never received “specific, credible evidence that bribes had been received” by García Luna. Other former U.S. diplomats and DEA officials have issued similar denials. If convicted, ProPublica’s Tim Golden wrote in January, García Luna’s “betrayal would point to one of the more extraordinary intelligence failures of the decadeslong U.S. battle against the drug trade in Mexico.”
Security analysts have pointed out that the U.S. approach of funneling military aid to top Mexican officials in the hopes of stopping drug trafficking has also been a strategic failure. A new report from the U.S. Institute of Peace offers detailed examples of how Mexican elites “captured” the benefit of U.S. security assistance while drug trafficking continued to take a toll on both Mexican and U.S. civilian lives.
In October 2021, Washington and Mexico City jointly announced they were rethinking their approach to drug trafficking—seeking to reject militarism and focus instead on addressing drug use as a health issue. They also said they aimed to increase cooperation on investigating and prosecuting organized crime.
Last week, however, DEA chief Anne Milgram testified to the U.S. Congress that Mexico is not sharing information with the United States about seizures of fentanyl and fentanyl precursor chemicals or allowing joint operations against clandestine labs in Mexico. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also continued to expand the crime-fighting authority of Mexico’s army.
López Obrador’s government “has not pursued many judicial corruption cases, and it is telling that the [García Luna] trial is in New York City, not Mexico City,” Ioan Grillo wrote last month in Foreign Policy. The López Obrador administration pressured the U.S. government into dropping drug charges against an influential retired military general in 2020. And, in what critics say is another erosion of checks on his power, López Obrador has pushed for cuts to the budget and operating ability of Mexico’s electoral authority. The cuts passed the country’s legislature this week.
In other words, if the García Luna case revealed what was wrong with Mexico’s war on drugs, course corrections pledged by Mexico’s president are still slow to materialize. He also appears to be stifling U.S. attempts at a paradigm shift.
Even so, the García Luna case should serve as a spark for reform, journalist and editor Jesús García, who covered the trial, tweeted. “This is an opportunity for Mexico to change.”
Friday, Feb. 24, to Saturday, Feb. 25: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico participate in a meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in India.
Thursday, March 2, to Friday, March 3: Panama hosts the Our Ocean Conference on conservation.
What We’re Following
Protecting stateless Nicaraguans. As of late Thursday, the governments of Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina said they would offer asylum or citizenship to the critics of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega who were stripped of their citizenship this month. An Uruguayan lawmaker has proposed that his country similarly offer citizenship to the group. The announcements follow in the footsteps of Spain, which became the first country to offer the dissidents citizenship two weeks ago.
The overtures have been accompanied by condemnations of Ortega’s actions—which came first and most pointedly from Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who called Ortega a “dictator.” López Obrador was more measured but said: “Nationality cannot be taken away by decree.”
New U.S. restrictions on asylum. The Biden administration unveiled plans Tuesday to ban migrants from soliciting asylum at the U.S. southern border if they did not previously apply for it in other countries they traveled through. The move comes as the controversial Title 42 policy—a pandemic-era measure that greatly restricted most migrants’ ability to seek asylum in the United States—is set to be rolled back as U.S. President Joe Biden ends the country’s COVID-19 state of emergency in May.
Biden’s policy is similar to a so-called “transit ban” that former President Donald Trump proposed but which was blocked in U.S. courts. The new plan includes exceptions for people facing medical emergencies and imminent threat of violent crime and allows migrants from some countries to apply for temporary permission to reside in the United States from abroad via a mobile app.
The announcement came days after a UNICEF official projected that the number of people traveling northward across the dangerous jungle border between Colombia and Panama will be higher in 2023 than in 2022. This year, more than 300,000 migrants are projected to cross the jungle, of whom more than 60,000 could be minors, she said.
Those projections, combined with the new U.S. restrictions, suggest that the asylum systems in countries north of Panama—including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Guatemala—could be strained even further.
Chile’s earthquake readiness. Chileans looked on empathetically as a massive earthquake hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on Feb. 6, killing more than 47,000 people. Chile is also prone to earthquakes thanks to its location along the belt of faults and volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean known as the Ring of Fire. As recently as 2010, Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude quake, a full point above Turkey and Syria’s recent disaster on the Richter scale.
But in that Chilean quake, a far smaller number of people—some 500—died, in large part because the country has adopted—and enforced—strict building codes, the Washington Post noted last week. (Turkey’s government has done the opposite, Gonul Tol explained in Foreign Policy on Feb. 10.) The government in Santiago began researching and enacting those codes after the largest earthquake of the 20th century occurred off Chile’s coast in 1960, killing more than 1,600 people.
Carnival is back. This week saw the first Carnival since COVID-19 restrictions were fully lifted across Latin America, and parades across the region referenced events of the past year. In Trinidad, dancers in a U.N.-sponsored campaign reminded the audience to get COVID-19 booster shots. In Colombia, the newly elected president and first lady joined parades in the street.
So, too, did Brazilian first lady Rosângela “Janja” Lula da Silva, who served as the symbolic “godmother” to one of the samba schools that competed in Rio de Janeiro’s official competition for best parade. The samba school included a reference to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in the lyrics of its anthem and in sequined script on a float: “Goodbye, captain,” an allusion to Bolsonaro’s former army rank and nickname.
Question of the Week
Rio de Janeiro is home to the world’s largest Carnival celebration, with an estimated 5 million people participating this year. What does the mayor do to kick off festivities?
Carnival begins when the mayor gives the key to the city to an actor playing King Momo, a character inspired by the Greek god of satire. King Momo also appears in Colombia’s carnival.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• What Putin Got Right by Stephen M. Walt
• Why the West Is Afraid of Ukraine’s Victory by Vasyl Cherepanyn
• The Drone War in Ukraine Is Cheap, Deadly, and Made in China by Faine Greenwood
In Focus: Everyday Racism
“Everyone who is not white in the Americas knows it,” Peruvian writer Marco Avilés observes in a new essay compilation from Pictoline and El País. The project gathered testimonies from people in five different Latin American countries about their experiences of everyday racism.
The interviewees said in short videos that they were the targets of racist comments or behavior despite achieving professional success and winning accolades. Prominent Chilean oceanographer Osvaldo Ulloa spoke of being ignored by two receptionists at an office building while they instead attended to lighter-skinned clients. Afro-Colombian nongovernmental organization director Velia Vidal recalled a person seated next to her at a professional dinner being surprised that a top government official had invited Vidal to meet.
In Latin America, Vidal said, there has long been “a myth of racial equality, where an idea of mixed-ness prevailed—that there are no Black people here, no descendants of enslaved people.” She said one result was the historic lack of racial reparation policies in Colombia.
Celebrated Mexican writer Alma Delia Murillo told the story of going on a major television network to speak about her work. In the makeup studio, a beautician took a long look at her and then announced she would apply cosmetics to make Murillo’s skin lighter; Murillo objected and denounced the racism.
The testimonials in the Pictoline and El País collection are especially relevant now, as anti-government demonstrations continue in Peru. Many of those protesting against President Dina Boluarte say they are fighting long-standing state abandonment of rural and nonwhite communities. They also oppose the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo, who was mocked for his rural origins.
Peru’s army and police, meanwhile, in December targeted a group of Indigenous protesters because they couldn’t understand what they were saying, Avilés wrote in his essay opening the Pictoline and El País series. Some lawmakers in Peru’s Congress have also said protesters should be “kicked” to Bolivia and compared their Indigenous flags to tablecloths at Chinese restaurants, Joshua Goodman of The Associated Press reported this week.
With these racial tensions laid bare, the protests have “given a jolt of self-confidence to Peru’s Indigenous movement,” which has historically lacked the political influence of Indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia, Goodman writes. On and off the streets, a new generation of Peruvian Indigenous activists have been using social media to spread their messages and denounce racism.
Alessandra Yupanqui, a Peruvian TikToker of Indigenous origin, is one such activist. She grew up thinking her last name was Guzmán until an uncle told her that her ancestors had changed it from Yupanqui, which they thought was “not a good last name,” she told El País. She posted a video telling the story, and the flood of comments made her realize that the experience “is more common than I thought.” She has since changed her name back.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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