Yarrington, García Luna, and Cienfuegos: Three Cases that Explain the New Judicial Relationship Between Mexico and the United States
A version of this article was previously published in Brújula Ciudadana, No. 148. https://www.revistabrujula.org/b148-tres-casos-para-entender-nueva-relacion-justicia-entre-mexico-eu.
This essay examines three recent criminal cases that were all resolved differently in the United States and explores what they collectively say about the precarious conditions of Mexico’s rule of law — specifically its justice system. It also draws conclusions about the significance of the cases and their impact on the new judicial relationship between the United States and Mexico.
The first is the case of a Mexican politician — former Governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington Ruvalcaba, who presided over Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2004. He pleaded guilty to receiving bribes in Mexico and laundering money in the United States. Yarrington was sentenced to nine years in prison — a lesser sentence than the one he would have likely received, in part due to his turning over about $US9 million in illicit funds that he laundered in the financial and real estate systems of the United States. This case hardly attracted attention in Mexico, but in essence, it represents the admission of guilt of a top, high-ranking Mexican politician. Yarrington confessed to having diverted funds from the Mexican treasury and to acquiring funds through extortion, before laundering the proceeds in the financial and real estate systems of the United States. With this case, Washington set a precedent for the Mexican political class and its apparent inclinations to bring ill-gotten funds into the U.S. with the intention of legitimizing the illegally obtained money.
The second case involves another high-ranking official, former Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna, who served in this role from 2006 to 2012. García Luna was charged, prosecuted, and found guilty of organized crime, drug trafficking, and conspiracy for the distribution, possession, and import of cocaine by a United States federal court in the state of New York. Today he is awaiting a sentence, which in principle would have been issued at the end of June but has now been postponed until September 2023. The court in which this case was settled, presided by federal judge Brian M. Cogan, has shown enormous interest in cases involving Mexican drug traffickers — most notably the case of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a Sinaloa Cartel boss. The case of Genaro García Luna is of the utmost importance because it is about a high-ranking Mexican official who was in charge of ensuring the country’s public security and was convicted of engaging in activities that the United States considers a threat to its well-being and justice system.
The United States government has previously sought to prosecute high-ranking Mexican officials. Such is the case of Manuel Bartlett Díaz, an ally of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and director of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), who has an open case file with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for having participated in the alleged torture and death of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an agent of the DEA, in 1985. These efforts, however, are often the exception and have been pursued largely in extreme cases and through relatively formal administrative and diplomatic channels (i.e., extradition requests). The case of Genaro García Luna, however, is in a way a unilateral action by the government of the United States, which did not consult the government of Mexico, and which, like the case of Yarrington, sends another message to Mexican government elites: In the United States they can be prosecuted without political and diplomatic considerations.
The third case is that of General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018. He was also investigated by the DEA, which accused him of organized crime and drug trafficking due to the profits he made from offering protection to criminal cartels in exchange for looking the other way. Cienfuegos was arrested in California upon his arrival at the airport in Los Angeles with his family in December 2019. However, he was never formally charged. Instead, he was released a few weeks later without facing a trial due to an alleged negotiation between the government of then-President Donald Trump (2017-2021) and current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024). The reasons why the Mexican government intervened in his favor have not been entirely clear, but it is believed that there was enormous pressure from the Mexican armed forces on President López Obrador to advocate for his release. Given the extreme power the president has conferred on the military, it is not surprising that he made every effort to obtain Cienfuegos’ release.
Interpreting the Three Cases
The cases of these Mexican elected politicians and high-ranking officials, all three of whom held significant power in the country, can be seen as the beginning of what appears to be a new public policy of the United States. Although not necessarily by central design, this new policy stance is nonetheless equally effective and addresses the gaping deficiencies of the administration and delivery of justice in Mexico, where the government seems both unwilling and incapable of processing criminal cases successfully — even in high-profile cases such as those presented above. Of course, U.S. government agencies, the prosecutors involved in the cases, and the judges who preside over the trials are acting in the best interest of their own country and are not necessarily thinking about articulating a policy toward justice in Mexico, but the cases are symbolic and meaningful in their own right. All three cases violate the national security of the United States, especially if Mexico fails to cooperate. These cases also set a new precedent in charging and prosecuting high-ranking Mexican politicians and officials, filling an important gap that the Mexican government has been neglecting in relation to its obligation to build and strengthen a rule of law within and between the two countries — and which the U.S. government considers the sine qua non of a well-functioning binational relationship.
It is very likely that it may not be possible to speak of a comprehensive and well-articulated public policy by the U.S. government behind these three cases. In the United States, these types of actions are hardly ever done by the federal government’s design or even coordinated from within one of its security and law enforcement agencies. Quite simply, this is not how the U.S. government works, given the fragmentation of power in many areas and directions. In fact, the initiation, follow-up, and success of these cases depend largely on the individuals and collective interest of investigators, prosecutors, and even the same judges who devote time and energy to each case — and whose work is sometimes sabotaged by other areas of the government. This was the case of General Cienfuegos who was released by President Trump and his attorney general, Bill Barr — actions that infuriated the DEA agents who had been attentive to the case and had followed it for years before the general was arrested in Los Angeles. But for those who understand how the institutional and political framework of the United States works, it is clear that because there is no internal coordination, these cases do not reflect a new national policy in the face of Mexico's inaction, or in the face of problems that affect the interests of the United States. Still, the three cases set new precedents for what we can expect in the future of the bilateral relationship — especially in the absence of binational cooperation during López Obrador’s administration. They clearly represent a growing impatience in Washington with Mexico’s dramatic failures in the prosecution of justice, particularly on issues that cross the border.
And if this is correct, and these cases can be concatenated and interpreted as a groundbreaking new approach to issues of interest to the United States justice system, it can be concluded that in these precedents there is indeed a growing frustration from Washington that goes beyond annoyance over simple flaws in the rule of law in Mexico, and reaches into the failure of the binational cooperation mechanisms to combat organized crime and corruption in Mexico. That is, faced with the difficulty of establishing a reliable partnership with the government of Mexico — attributable to the failure of its domestic institutions to fight organized crime, corruption, money laundering, and other issues — the United States has begun to act unilaterally through its agencies, prosecutors, and judges. In other words, given the negligence of the Mexican government, the United States judicial system has now fully engaged in addressing these issues.
Of course, this unilateral approach — wherein the U.S. justice system prosecutes Mexican politicians and officials without the niceties of political and diplomatic work between the two nations — could bring harsh moments and even outright conflict to the binational relationship. This can already be seen in the latest statements of President López Obrador in relation to the calls of some Republican congressmen and U.S. politicians to intervene more openly in Mexico. It is possible that Washington is speculating that the tensions that could occur over this new policy of combatting corruption and impunity in Mexico through the U.S. courts should be subordinated in favor of ensuring the reliability of Mexico as a commercial and geostrategic partner — especially in an uncertain world characterized by Russian aggressiveness and Chinese competition. However, it is also possible that more and more Mexican politicians and officials will come under the watchful eye of U.S. investigators, prosecutors, and the judicial system — even more so if these officials are responsible for security policies or preside over the executive branch in a state that borders U.S. territory. If interpreted that way, the only possible conclusion is that in the United States there is a discontent about Mexico's insolvency to establish a rule of law.
Given this reading of the uniqueness of the three cases — regardless of their outcomes — it is worth asking what the emergence of this new political will in the United States will mean for the U.S.-Mexico relationship. This question is even more important in light of calls for U.S. legislators and governors to take more aggressive unilateral measures to combat organized crime, corruption, and impunity in Mexican territory — to the point that some have called for direct intervention against organized crime in Mexico, especially that pertaining to drug trafficking.
The Meaning of These Cases to the Binational Relationship
The three cases described above enclose a series of signs that there is mounting concern in the United States surrounding what is happening in Mexico — the deep institutional weakness of public security, the feebleness in the delivery and administration of justice in the country, and the absence of political will in the López Obrador administration to cooperate with the U.S. to solve problems around the rule of law that should be of common interest. More recently, in the face of political pressure that has arisen in the U.S. Congress, particularly but not exclusively from Republicans, these deficiencies have been accompanied by a renewed nationalist and even anti-American rhetoric in many of President López Obrador’s statements. The debates around the issue of fentanyl are at the core of the rhetoric and have been quite public. It is unlikely that the U.S. will act unilaterally, of course, but its justice system does have a long arm and can easily reach well into Mexico — and would likely do so if Mexico expels DEA agents as López Obrador has threatened to do. This, of course, would not be a desirable state for the binational relationship.
Even so, given this panorama, the three cases point to a real concern in Washington, which unleashes a series of risks for the binational relationship. First, the three cases mentioned above are emblematic of the discontent from the United States with 1) the deficiencies of the rule of law in Mexico; 2) the growing corruption in the country, accompanied by rampant impunity; and 3) the obvious inability of the Mexican government to create institutions capable of fighting organized crime, corruption, and impunity in the country. Second, the three cases also reveal that Washington's impatience is growing, and the temptation to act unilaterally is increasing rapidly. For the United States, especially for Congress, these three cases taken together are the result of a de facto renunciation of any attempts by the Mexican government to rebuild its rule of law.
That is, the three cases contribute to the United States’ negative perception of Mexico, whose reputational capital suffers considerable deterioration not only with its neighboring country, but with countries around the world.
Moreover, if there are no changes in the direction of delivery and administration of justice in Mexico, or an attempt to minimally meet Washington's demands, this trend could continue with serious consequences for the bilateral relationship — ranging from a failure of cooperation altogether to unilateral actions and even U.S. covert operations in Mexican territory against organized crime groups and other actors that facilitate their activities. In this sense, if there are no improvements in Mexico’s rule of law, mutual trust is at risk, a condition necessary for a robust and mutually beneficial economic relationship. Even worse, the risk of covert operations by the U.S. in Mexico against organized criminals and other actors that enable their activities could have severe consequences for the binational relationship.
If this sequence is carried to its natural conclusion, it will be a huge stumbling block to the possibility of a binational strategic partnership, underpinned by a robust economic relationship between the two countries and effective institutions of justice in Mexico. This is because these three cases manifest the latent possibility of Mexico losing its status as a reliable partner of the United States due to attempts to relocate a large part of the manufacturing industry from Asia (specifically China) to North America (so-called “nearshoring”). It is because of this global urgency that the United States cannot afford to ignore what happens south of the border, given the repercussions of Mexico’s dysfunction not only for American society, but also for Mexico’s potential role in the global economy.
Therefore, in the face of Mexico’s inaction, these three cases, although they are not factually related to each other, present common elements and are of interest to the United States. The cases of García Luna and General Cienfuegos involved main actors responsible for the security of the country at the time, and the case of Yarrington involved a governor of a state that borders U.S. territory. These cases show that the United States protects its interests and more when dealing with security, drug trafficking, and border issues. This new U.S. strategy to deal with Mexican politicians and officials accused of crimes that are detrimental to the United States — whether by action or collusion — seeks to pressure certain instruments related to the delivery of justice in Mexico to collaborate with the objectives of the United States in terms of national security (in the face of a changing international scenario), public security (for example, the use of the financial system to launder money, making said system an accomplice of Mexican corruption), and even in terms of public health (the consumption of narcotics that kills almost 110,000 residents of the United States each year). It can then be concluded that, if Mexico is not willing to act, the U.S. judicial system will act as a kind of parallel system of justice — at least to the extent that whatever crimes occurred in Mexico had real effects in the United States.
In this sense, the deployment of the so-called long arm of U.S. jurisdiction on Mexican politicians and officials represents the outsourcing or delegation (perhaps involuntary, and even necessary) of Mexican justice to the prosecutors and courts of the United States. This effect, although dramatic when interpreted in this way, cannot be denied as a step that not only combats corruption and impunity in Mexico through the United States judicial system, but also turns out to be a benefit to many Mexicans who are directly or indirectly victims of corruption or impunity of Mexican officials themselves, or from politicians who are not willing to fight against corruption. In this sense, it should be added that between the United States and Mexico, there are many inter-thematic issues — and the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption in Mexico is a key part.
The three cases referred to in this article are novel because the United States acted outside the formalities of diplomacy in the binational relationship. They also reflect the unilateral actions the U.S. government is using in its jurisdiction to prosecute three senior officials of the Mexican government. The U.S. justice system is becoming an alternative system for that of Mexico given the clear deficiencies of the rule of law in the latter. These three cases point to a new policy by Washington to use its long-arm jurisdiction to arrest, prosecute, and punish Mexican politicians and officials who have committed crimes that harm U.S. interests. This is being done not only to ensure that what happens in Mexico does not affect the United States, but also to pressure the Mexican government to find a way to repair its system of delivery and administration of justice.
This new dynamic could lead to the emergence of a moral hazard that contributes to the culture of illegality in Mexico. If the American justice system becomes a system parallel to that in Mexico, or even substitutive of it, the incentives for the Mexican government to seek to strengthen its institutional capacities in this area may be diminished. Moreover, if this continues, the incentives for the country to continue with the construction and strengthening of the institutions responsible for guaranteeing the rule of law would be lost, and the pursuit of justice — even in the most emblematic cases, such as drug trafficking and corruption — would be done in the United States, following American interests, and not in Mexico, where the crimes are committed and where most of the victims of these crimes reside.
 U.S. Department of Justice, “Former Mexican Governor and Presidential Candidate Sentenced for Money Laundering,” Press Release, March 15, 2023, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdtx/pr/former-mexican-governor-and-presidential-candidate-sentenced-money-laundering.
 U.S. Department of Justice, “Ex-Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna Convicted of Engaging in a Continuing Criminal Enterprise and Taking Millions in Cash Bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel,” Press Release, February 21, 2023, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/ex-mexican-secretary-public-security-genaro-garcia-luna-convicted-engaging-continuing.
 Elias Camhaji, “The sentence against García Luna, postponed until September,” El País, April 3, 2023, https://elpais.com/mexico/2023-04-03/la-sentencia-contra-garcia-luna-pospuesta-hasta-septiembre.html.
 To the misfortune of Genaro García Luna, and perhaps for this reason, this important precedent has not been noted. The López Obrador government does not consider it important to intercede for him, partly because of its own resentments toward the administration of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012), who was president during García Luna’s functions as the secretariat of security.
 Tim Golden, “The Cienfuegos Affair: Inside the Case That Upended the Drug War in Mexico,” The New York Times, December 8, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/08/magazine/mexico-general-cienfuegos.html.
 Eric Garcia “GOP Calls for Military Intervention in Response to Murdered American Tourists in Mexico,” March 7, 2023, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/lindsey-graham-mexico-drug-cartel-b2295915.html.
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