Accusations of US Spying in Mexico Reveal AMLO’s Hostile Intentions Toward US Interests
Following two allegations of U.S. spying in Mexico, a threat to expel DEA agents from Mexico, and a chain of evidence revealing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s deference to powerful drug cartels in his country, calls are growing for the U.S. to consider Mexico a hostile state. This article reviews the evidence and determines that López Obrador’s actions should indeed be considered hostile, particularly as he continues to allow the Sinaloa Cartel to produce and export fentanyl into the United States.
Allegations of U.S. Spying in Mexico and López Obrador’s Response
Mexican President López Obrador recently stated that he will place even more stringent restrictions on U.S. government agencies operating in Mexico in response to reports this month that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) had been spying in Mexico.
These claims refer to what was a routine drug enforcement investigation, not a covert spying activity, when the DEA did the police work necessary to bring charges on April 14 against 28 high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel — including “Los Chapitos,” the three sons of Joaquin Guzman Loera, or “El Chapo Guzman.” The Sinaloa Cartel is the “the largest, most violent, and most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world.” In effect, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram stated that the agency had “obtained unprecedented access to the organization’s highest levels and followed them across the world,” prompting López Obrador to complain that the infiltration was done illegally in Mexico.
On April 18, López Obrador again cried foul as he complained of alleged intelligence activities of the U.S. DOD in Mexico, following leaks in the U.S. media of intelligence reports that revealed infighting between elements of the Mexican navy (SEMAR) and army (SEDENA.) In response, López Obrador asserted that he would begin classifying Mexican military information to protect national security against further infiltration.
As for DEA activities in Mexico, López Obrador issued a thinly veiled threat of expelling DEA agents from Mexico, because “There can’t be foreign agents in our country.” He further asserted that the DEA had carried out its operations against the Sinaloa Cartel without the authorization of his government and vowed to issue a formal diplomatic complaint to the U.S. government.
There Is No American Spying in Mexico
Despite López Obrador’s accusations, it is important to note that there has been no spying, by statutory definition and practice, by the DEA or any other federal law enforcement agency, in Mexico. This is due to statutory limitations that prohibit any federal law enforcement agency from conducting espionage activities, which is reserved for intelligence community agencies and the DOD under Title 50 of the United States Code (USC).
The DEA operates under Title 21 USC authority and is known for successfully conducting judicially authorized overt collection of information from a variety of human sources, including civilians who volunteer information, cooperating defendants, and paid informants. This information is supported by corroborating evidence obtained through court-ordered technological means and is made available to the public after a judicial trial is completed. The judicial oversight and transparency by which the DEA operates is indicative of an agency that performs legally under the rule of law.
As to the alleged DOD spying on the Mexican navy, the intimacy of the information reported in the leaked report indicates that it likely came from a conversation between Mexican military and U.S. military liaison officials, instead of the information having been gathered covertly with illicit spy gear. This sort of information gathering hardly amounts to spying and speaks more to the strength of the bilateral relationship previously maintained between the two militaries, wherein communications, cooperation, and coordination were key to joint past success.
More than likely, by accusing the U.S. government of espionage, López Obrador is attempting to deflect from the fact that his own government has been caught spying on Mexican citizens with Israeli-supplied equipment — i.e., the Pegasus software scandal, which erupted in Mexico’s media when, on April 18, 2023, the Mexico-based civil rights group Centro Prodh reported that two of its staff had their phones targeted by SEDENA using Pegasus, an Israeli cell phone intercept system.
Why the Accusations Matter
The incidents bring up the question of why López Obrador would want to conceal details of the bilateral relationship from the public eye. A potential answer is that he has made a political and financial alliance with his military, particularly the army, by giving them power to operate civilian institutions and making them more than equal partners in governance. He is then using that allegiance to protect his political interests and possible future.
However, López Obrador’s complaints of U.S. law enforcement intelligence activities in Mexico are more likely based on fears that his administration will be further discovered as corrupt as it is working with the same cartels that he previously complained about and now so infamously refuses to confront. Evidence provided to Mexico during the Cienfuegos case showed that SEDENA had a working relationship with the cartels, giving reason as to why the López Obrador administration has been so soft on them.
Several events support this hypothesis, including the fact that in March 2020, López Obrador personally met with and consoled the mother of Sinaloa Cartel Kingpin Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán after he was found guilty of drug trafficking and organized crime charges in a U.S. court. Moreover, in June 2020, López Obrador personally ordered the release of Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo Guzmán’s son, and one of the recently indicted “Chapitos,” after his detention during a military operation.
In November 2020, López Obrador also dismissed evidence provided by the U.S. justifying the arrest of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos for being complicit in drug trafficking. Adding to this line of argument, on April 10, 2023, López Obrador asserted that “In Mexico fentanyl is not produced, the raw material for fentanyl is not produced,” thereby providing unsubstantiated government deniability and subsequent impunity for the cartels.
Should Mexico Be Considered a Hostile State?
After this chain of key evidence, there have been calls to declare Mexico a hostile state and to intervene unilaterally to contain the effects of organized crime, particularly drug trafficking in the United States. The voices calling for this have been growing.
Should Mexico be considered a hostile state? It is not an easy question to answer. However, clearly the acts described above support the growing belief that the López Obrador administration is working with criminals in Mexico, much to the detriment of the U.S. The Sinaloa Cartel is one of two cartels that produce and export fentanyl to the U.S., and because López Obrador has personally demonstrated a deference to the cartels and their leadership, his actions illuminate a clear and present danger to American society. Therefore, the López Obrador administration does not appear to be interested in meaningful cooperation on bilateral drug law enforcement, and its actions should be regarded as hostile to U.S. interests.
The combined actions of the López Obrador administration serve to provide sufficient justification to keep further tabs on the Mexican government, whether through overt or covert means, and through both law enforcement and intelligence agencies alike. Subsequently, the U.S. government should develop contingency plans to account for the threatened expulsion of the DEA staff from Mexico and increase law enforcement intelligence collection operations targeting cartels from offices in U.S. states bordering Mexico.
 United States Department of Justice, “Justice Department Charges Against Sinaloa Carte’s Global Operation: ‘Chapitos’ Charged in Department’s Latest Actions to Disrupt Flow of Illegal Fentanyl and Other Dangerous Drugs,” Office of Public Affairs, April 14 2023, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-charges-against-sinaloa-cartel-s-global-operation.
 “AMLO criticizes DEA for unauthorized operations in Mexico,” Mexico’s News Daily, April 17, 2023, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/amlo-criticizes-dea-for-unauthorized-operations-in-mexico/.
 “Mexican president accuses Pentagon of spying, vows to restrict military information,” Reuters, April 18, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexican-president-accuses-pentagon-spying-vows-restrict-military-information-2023-04-18/.
 Mexico’s Daily News, “AMLO criticizes DEA.”
 United States Drug Enforcement Administration, “The Controlled Substances Act,” Accessed April 24, 2023, https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/csa.
 Sara González, “Pegasus: Activistas denuncian espionaje en gobierno de AMLO,” ABC Noticias, April 18, 2023, https://abcnoticias.mx/nacional/2023/4/18/pegasus-activistas-denuncian-espionaje-en-gobierno-de-amlo-186800.html.
 “AMLO says it’s OK to shake hands with el Chapo’s mother,” The Mazatlan Post, March 31, 2020, https://themazatlanpost.com/2020/03/31/amlo-says-its-ok-to-shake-hands-with-el-chapos-mother/; United States Department of Justice, “Joint Statement by Attorney General of the United States William P. Barr and Fiscalía General of Mexico Alejandro Gertz Manero,” Office of Public Affairs, November 17, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/joint-statement-attorney-general-united-states-william-p-barr-and-fiscal-general-mexico.
 “Mexican president says he ordered release of 'El Chapo's' son,” Reuters, June 19, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-politics-el-chapo-idUSKBN23Q3AW.
 United States Department of Justice, “Joint Statement.”
 “Mexican officials to hold talks in U.S. on fentanyl smuggling -president,” Reuters, April 10, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexican-officials-hold-talks-us-fentanyl-smuggling-president-2023-04-10/.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.