They call him the Eagle: How the U.S. lost a key ally in Mexico as fentanyl took off
MEXICO CITY — The small American surveillance plane took off from a Mexican navy base in Baja California and flew high across the Sea of Cortez. Charting a course for the Sierra Madre mountains — cartel territory — the aircraft did not appear on any flight trackers or public logs. An orb-shaped device about the size of a beach ball was mounted on the fuselage, bristling with sensors and antennas.
U.S. agents called it “the sniffer.”
The device was an experimental version of a mass spectrometer, used to identify chemicals. As the U.S. aircraft banked over the forested hills of Sinaloa state, it dipped lower, sampling the air for wafting fumes.
The sniffer, whose secret use in the skies over Mexico has never been reported, had been deployed by the Pentagon and the CIA to target heroin production sites in Afghanistan. By 2018, faced with deadly synthetic narcotics pouring across the U.S. border, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and other U.S. agencies adapted it to go after Mexico’s clandestine drug labs, according to current and former American officials.
Waiting on the ground were the forces of the Americans’ most trusted ally in Mexico, a man more valuable to the DEA than any novel gadget. Adm. Marco Antonio Ortega Siu, the head of the navy special operations unit, had worked with the United States for nearly a decade.
Ortega Siu was known for his fearlessness — he and his men had taken down dozens of major traffickers, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. But the admiral, a short, taciturn man with a shock of white hair, kept such a low profile that he was practically a ghost to the Mexican public. The Americans knew him by his code name, “El Águila.” The Eagle.
As the plane reached the target that day in August 2018, it confirmed a tip from DEA informants about the location of a lab. Once the surveillance was complete, Águila’s men swooped in.
Beneath dense foliage and plastic tarps, they found vats of solvents and barrels of precursor chemicals. Burlap sacks stuffed with methamphetamine filled 12-foot-deep pits. In all, they discovered an estimated 50 metric tons of crystal meth, one of the biggest seizures in Mexican history.
LEFT: Technicians from the Mexican navy in August 2018 investigate a lab on the outskirts of Culiacán where an estimated 50 metric tons of meth were discovered. (Mexican Secretariat of the Navy) RIGHT: (Excélsior)
“It was incredible,” said Matt Donahue, who ran the DEA office in Mexico at the time. “We never thought meth could be produced in those amounts.”
The bust was a triumph for the tactical alliance between the United States and the Mexican navy’s special forces that for a decade had defined the nations’ anti-drug fight. It rested on a delicate division of labor. The United States provided technology and intelligence; Mexico furnished muscle and resolve.
Yet just months after the giant meth haul, that partnership began to unravel. A new Mexican leader rejected the $3 billion anti-narcotics agreement that had spanned three U.S. presidencies, known as the Mérida Initiative. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran leftist who took office in December 2018, argued that the drug war strategy had sent homicides spiraling in Mexico while failing to curb U.S. demand.
The sniffer flights stopped. Águila was sidelined and his battle-hardened commandos were reassigned. López Obrador rebuffed U.S. offers for new drug-detection technology. Mexico shut down a pivotal base where the special forces had worked with U.S. agents. It even took away the parking spot for the DEA’s plane at an airport outside Mexico City.
The fissure opened just as Mexico was poised to become the No. 1 supplier of fentanyl to the United States, overtaking China, according to the DEA.
This account, based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. and Mexican officials, is the untold story of America’s most dependable drug war ally, and how the relationship with Mexico fell apart just as a river of synthetic drugs flooded the United States.
The Mexican admiral’s work was so sensitive that his full résumé remains a state secret. After months of negotiations with The Washington Post, Águila agreed to provide written answers to some questions.
He declined to comment on Mexico’s current security policies or the circumstances of his departure, saying he took an unpaid leave of absence in July 2019, and has been “helping my children with their daily lives.”
In the years since Águila left, traffickers have ruthlessly exploited the breakdown in bilateral cooperation, as they transitioned from plant-based drugs such as marijuana and heroin to deadlier synthetic narcotics.
U.S. fatalities from drug overdoses surpassed 107,000 in 2021, the highest ever. Two-thirds of the deaths involved fentanyl.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have confiscated more than 45,300 pounds of fentanyl through the first 11 months of this year, up from 5,800 pounds in 2018, according to a Post analysis of the latest government data. In November, U.S. authorities seized 2,900 pounds at the southern border, the highest monthly total ever.
Biden administration officials aren’t concealing their frustration. “Mexico needs to do more. We believe that they can do more,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in an interview. “We think it’s vitally important that Mexico work on these issues as tirelessly as we do.”
The amount of fentanyl seized in Mexico is just 15 percent of what U.S. authorities confiscate, Milgram said.
“Extraditions from Mexico are down,” she added. “What is up is fentanyl. And what is up is fentanyl coming into the United States.”
Roberto Velasco, a senior Mexican Foreign Ministry official, countered that the previous strategy had “failed in the two main objectives” — to reduce violence in Mexico and curtail drug trafficking in both countries.
“We had an increase in deaths from fentanyl use, we had an increase in violence in Mexico, so this approach was evidently not successful, and obviously we weren’t successful in dismantling the criminal organizations that existed in the two countries,” Velasco said.
The governments hammered out a new agreement, putting more emphasis on fighting addiction and the illegal sale of U.S. guns to cartels. But it wasn’t announced until October 2021 — nearly three years after López Obrador became president.
Combating fentanyl would have been daunting under the best of circumstances, because it is so cheap to make and so easy to smuggle. But the U.S.-Mexico rupture made a difficult situation worse. The two governments have been unable to agree on even basic facts, such as whether Mexico is a major manufacturer of the opioid or mostly a transshipment point. The chill in relations has left DEA agents scrutinizing press releases to figure out the types of narcotics and precursor chemicals the Mexican military has seized.
Many drug war veterans blame López Obrador’s policies for the rift. Yet interviews in both countries reveal a more complicated picture.
The U.S.-Mexico security partnership was in trouble well before López Obrador took over. For a decade, the countries had promised to tackle two crucial sources of the drug crisis: Mexico’s weak justice system and Americans’ demand for powerful narcotics. Neither side met its mandate.
The result: The American effort to combat the flow of drugs had become more and more reliant on one man.
“Águila became the white knight. The favorite son,” said John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador who was second-in-command at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico from 2009 to 2012. “Why? He delivered.”
Unlike many police and army officers, Águila didn’t appear to be in league with the very cartels he was supposed to be fighting. To the Americans, he seemed to be made of pure guts. He would sometimes accompany his men on raids, wielding his UMP45 submachine gun.
“He was the first guy through the door,” said Joe Evans, a former DEA director in Mexico. “He wasn’t like other forces, where the ‘jefe’ is sitting back in the office.”
Yet Águila worked in a country with a broken legal system, where less than 2 percent of crimes were ever solved. And by the time López Obrador took office, it was a country where 20 percent of national territory was under cartel control, according to CIA estimates obtained by The Post.
A country where relying on the military brought its own set of problems.
‘Never a leak’
The alliance with Águila got off to a bad start. In December 2009, he went to the DEA office in Mexico City to explain how one of the country’s most notorious drug traffickers had escaped.
“We screwed up,” Águila told the DEA, according to Evans, the agency’s regional chief at the time. “Give us another shot.”
For years, the DEA had been trying to bring down Arturo Beltrán Leyva, a wily kingpin who gunned down cops and bought off politicians. Evans had worked with Mexico’s powerful army as well as the federal police. But this time he’d taken a chance on the much-smaller Mexican navy — in particular, on a promising senior officer known as El Águila.
The DEA had gotten word that Beltrán Leyva was at a barbecue in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, Evans told the Mexican officer. The navy dispatched a heavily armed team, but the “Boss of the Bosses” slipped away.
“So we’re like: ‘Here we go again,’” recalled Evans, who assumed there’d been a leak. Águila persuaded Evans to give his men another chance.
Five days later, on Dec. 16, 2009, commandos rappelling from helicopters surrounded a luxury condo complex in Cuernavaca.
Bullets whizzed through the trafficker’s second-floor apartment, tearing holes the size of golf balls in the walls. A 30-year-old marine, Melquisedet Angulo, was hit by a grenade blast in a stairwell and slumped to the ground, fatally wounded. The gun battle lasted four hours, and when the fight was over, Beltrán Leyva and four of his bodyguards lay dead.
It was the biggest takedown since President Felipe Calderón had gone to war against the cartels in 2006, deploying tens of thousands of troops. Angulo was honored with a widely publicized hero’s funeral.
LEFT: Melquisedet Angulo's mother, Josefa Angulo Flores, and aunt Irma Cordova link arms at the Mexican marine's funeral. The women were killed by gangsters hours later. (America Rocio/AP) RIGHT: Mexican marines accompany the vehicle carrying Angulo's body during his funeral in Paraíso. (Carlos Sobrino/AP)
Hours later, gangsters hunted down and killed Angulo’s mother, two siblings and aunt. U.S. agents were horrified. For the Mexican forces, the incident laid bare that it would be a war without military parades and public honors. They would have to fight the cartels from the shadows. “We had to adapt and adjust,” Águila said.
Organized-crime groups were carrying out acts of spectacular violence and growing savagery, ambushing military and police convoys on rural highways and filling mass graves with travelers hauled off buses. U.S. officials grew alarmed as violence exploded in Monterrey and other northern Mexico cities where Fortune 500 companies had invested heavily in plants and factories after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
With the threat to the stability of the Mexican government worsening, both countries were hungry for a crime fighter who could stand up to the cartels.
Using informants, wiretaps and surveillance, U.S. agents tracked drug bosses and relayed their locations to Águila’s commandos for the kind of “high-value target” operations the Americans used successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Águila’s forces didn’t hold back. Mexican commandos in helicopters took out Gulf cartel boss Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, a.k.a. “Tony Tormenta,” in a wild urban gun battle in 2010 that left bodies scattered in the border city of Matamoros. Two years later, special forces killed the leader of the Zetas, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, after a firefight against cartel gunmen wielding a grenade launcher.
“Tactically, they were just awesome,” Evans said. But the special forces were trained to kill, not to make arrests and gather evidence for criminal prosecution. Their targets were extremely dangerous, but Evans would offer a “friendly reminder” that from time to time “it might be good to bring the guy back alive.”
In his response to The Post, Águila wrote that drug bosses were killed because they resisted arrest. “We never planned an operation to eliminate anyone,” he wrote.
To the Americans, the navy commandos seemed to be the rare entity capable of quickly launching complex, dangerous operations. Águila was indefatigable, working 16-hour days. He didn’t drink or smoke. And when U.S. agents shared sensitive information, Águila and his commandos acted fast — unlike the army. “There was never a leak,” Evans said.
One DEA agent recalled following Águila, then in his 50s, as he bounded off a helicopter during a hunt for a drug kingpin in northern Mexico. “I’m trying to catch up to him,” recalled the agent, who was not authorized to comment on the record. “I was embarrassed. Here I am, this younger buck, fumbling with my stuff.”
Even more startling: The Mexican officer wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. He rarely did; it was too bulky. “He had no fear,” the American agent said.
The DEA agents knew little about Águila’s personal life or why he didn’t seem tainted by some of the worst aspects of Mexican officialdom — the corruption, the timidity, the wariness of foreigners. Maybe, they figured, he was a kindred spirit.
“He’s blue-collar,” said Donahue, the former Mexico DEA chief. “Just like us.”
Indeed, the admiral was the son of a small-town salesman in Mexico’s southern Veracruz state, and the grandson of Chinese immigrants. “My family fought to get ahead every day,” Águila said in his written responses.
He entered the Heroic Naval Military School in 1975, a shy, diminutive 15-year-old in a world of “juniors” — sons of high-ranking officers. The academy was so rigorous that half his class of 150 dropped out before graduation, recalled a former classmate, retired Rear Adm. Jesús Canchola Camarena. Águila joined the marines, like other young men “drawn to adventure,” Canchola recalled. But what stood out was the young cadet’s leadership; he often served as coach in the students’ informal wrestling matches. He eventually became a decorated helicopter pilot.
Later, under Calderón, when the navy sought senior officers to build a top-flight special forces corps, many were reluctant, recalled another of Águila’s former classmates.
“It was very, very risky,” he recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “The navy had to protect itself from everyone” — both drug traffickers and their allies in government.
Águila was undaunted.
“He felt that if they called on him, and he had the ability, he should do it,” the friend said.
Águila’s forces racked up an astonishing record. They dismantled the upper ranks of the Zetas, a vicious group dominated by former army special forces soldiers. In February 2014, they captured El Chapo, working with U.S. agents who had cracked the drug lord’s encrypted phone network.
The Sinaloa cartel leader tunneled his way out of prison the following year, and was hunted down by Águila’s commandos and caught again in 2016.
Águila declined to comment on which operations he led personally, citing security reasons. His special operations force grew to several thousand commandos, whom he hand-picked. “The level of training of our teams became the best in the world,” he said.
In 2017, guided by a U.S. Predator drone, Águila’s special forces parachuted into a mountain redoubt to capture a suspect wanted in the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. The late-night operation, executed with skilled precision, wowed U.S. officials and cemented Águila’s reputation as a heroic ally.
Despite the tactical wins, lasting victory in the drug war was elusive. U.S. demand for narcotics was growing. A DEA crackdown on U.S. opioid manufacturers and distributors left a vacuum that was filled with Mexican heroin, and then fentanyl. Plans to reform the Mexican justice system had stalled because of a lack of funding, as well as pushback from politicians and judges.
“The hard part is that, after you catch a bad guy, you have to pass him to the legal system,” said a retired naval officer who had worked with Águila, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. “And it’s rotten.”
For all the commandos’ bravado, they were painfully vulnerable. When they left their bases, they’d sometimes hear a whirring sound above: drones, sent by the narcos to track their movements. They got used to attending funerals for comrades.
“The pain never goes away,” Águila said. “We carry their families on our shoulders.”
At one point, cartel assailants fatally shot a U.S.-trained navy commando nicknamed “Máquina” (Machine). Máquina was a favorite of the DEA agents, a rising star who spoke excellent English. The American agents were desolate.
“We lose people all the time,” a former agent recalled Águila saying. He told everyone to get back to work.
‘A vicious circle’
President Donald Trump didn’t mince words when he got on the phone with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Jan. 27, 2017.
Mexico wasn’t doing enough about its “tough hombres,” Trump told him, according to a transcript of the call. “Maybe your military is afraid of them,” he said, “but our military is not afraid of them.” Mexican media buzzed with reports that Trump was threatening to send U.S. troops.
Two weeks later, a Mexican navy helicopter clattered through the humid night air of Tepic, capital of the western state of Nayarit. It paused over a three-story house, casting a spotlight below. Then, as startled neighbors watched, the helicopter’s .50-caliber machine gun opened up with a roar of bullets.
Juan Patrón Sánchez — a protege of the Beltrán Leyva trafficking family — became the latest kingpin to die at the hands of Águila’s men.
Cellphone videos of the attack pinged around social media, along with questions about why the military was using so much force. The navy said it was necessary: Patrón Sánchez’s bodyguards had been using the third floor as a sniper’s nest, to pick off the special forces troops in the street. That explanation didn’t satisfy Mexico’s future president.
“Why did they annihilate them [the bodyguards]? Why, if they investigate, and supposedly have foreign intelligence assistance, do they massacre them?” López Obrador asked in a speech in Nayarit the next day. He demanded to know whether the operation was carried out to appease Trump.
The Mexican politician wasn’t the only one asking questions. The U.S. Justice Department investigated an allegation that Águila had set out to kill Patrón Sánchez because the cartel leader had information on army corruption, according to four U.S. officials who had direct knowledge of the probe.
The accusation came from Edgar Veytia, a former Nayarit state attorney general arrested at the U.S. border in March 2017 on drug-trafficking charges. The investigation into Águila was ultimately closed because of questions about Veytia’s credibility, said the officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Veytia’s allegations were reported last week in a ProPublica-New York Times investigation.
“We never saw any direct information or evidence” that Águila had committed abuses in the operation, said Paul Craine, who led the DEA office in Mexico until 2017.
Veytia is serving a 20-year sentence in U.S. federal prison.
The Nayarit episode added to the concerns of politicians, human rights activists and academics about the U.S.-backed security strategy. More than 100,000 people had been killed in drug-related violence since the start of Calderón’s term in 2006. Human rights complaints had soared. Most focused on the army. But the navy had its scandals, too.
Then, in early 2018, people started disappearing in Nuevo Laredo, a gritty trade hub across from Laredo, Tex.
A father of two was hauled out of a mechanic’s shop on Feb. 3. His body was found in a field the next day. A few weeks later, two young men went out for a nighttime drive, then vanished after being detained. In late May, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein went public with his alarm. His investigators had documented 23 disappearances in just four months. The culprits, he said, appeared to belong to a “federal security force.”
He didn’t elaborate, but everyone knew who had been deployed to Nuevo Laredo: Águila’s commandos.
The navy responded by reassigning some of its forces while multiple investigations were launched. The case would haunt Águila for years.
The DEA had other worries. Methamphetamine seizures at the U.S. border were soaring. U.S. agents had identified a second, more ominous trend: Traffickers were pressing fentanyl into pills resembling popular oxycodone tablets, rather than simply selling the powder as a booster for heroin. And the potential market of people misusing prescription medications was “almost 10 times that of the heroin user population,” the DEA warned.
Fentanyl’s deadly surge
As the flow of synthetic drugs intensified, DEA agents in Mexico got a lucky break. Informants turned up at a DEA office in the United States, offering the locations of numerous meth labs in Mexico.
U.S. agents working with Águila got a green light from the Mexican military to run the sniffer flights and drone surveillance, according to two former U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operations.
The navy special forces blitzed a string of superlabs, uncovering the 50-ton cache on Aug. 16 and an additional 36 tons within days, according to navy press releases. Figures maintained by the DEA were even higher: 128 metric tons — more than what U.S. authorities typically confiscate along the Mexico border in a whole year.
U.S. and Mexican officials celebrated as they viewed videos and photos of the seizure.
Yet, on closer inspection, the raids underscored the limits of the partnership. The operations didn’t lead to a single arrest. The mega-busts never appeared in the Mexican government’s drug seizure statistics, according to data obtained through Mexico’s freedom-of-information system.
The reason? No one from the Mexican attorney general’s office was ever summoned to weigh and analyze the drugs and open an investigation, two navy officials confirmed. In the end, Águila’s men simply destroyed the methamphetamines.
The lack of follow-up from the justice system was a common problem. “What are the repercussions of this?” asked Josué Ángel González Torres, a former Mexican security official. “What we have every day: More than 90 percent of crimes are never punished.”
With little fear of arrest, he said, drug traffickers simply build new labs and shrug off their losses. “It’s a vicious circle.”
‘Hugs, not bullets’
By late 2018, Águila was one of the navy’s most decorated admirals, honored with numerous awards from both the United States and Mexico. Yet his position was increasingly tenuous.
López Obrador had won the presidency that July. As his aides considered candidates for navy secretary, they heard concerns about Águila and his force’s aggressive tactics.
“Ortega Siu was relentless. But he made mistakes,” said Raúl Benítez, a national security expert with deep ties to the navy who teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. That was especially true in Nuevo Laredo, where egregious human rights violations occurred, he said.
There was a second strike against Águila. The incoming president didn’t want the armed forces “subordinated” to foreign countries, he told the leftist daily La Jornada.
“This is an error that the navy committed in recent years,” López Obrador said. “We’re going to fix that.”
The era of spectacular kingpin busts was over, he pledged. Instead, Mexico would focus on fighting the government corruption that enabled organized crime to thrive. People would be lured from crime by jobs and educational opportunities. He dubbed his policy “hugs, not bullets.”
Navy special forces troops were reassigned to the coasts. Águila was replaced as special operations chief.
Mexico’s presidential spokesman, Jesús Ramírez, said the move was part of the “normal changes” of a new administration.
In Sinaloa, Águila’s men dismantled the makeshift base they had used for key operations like the Chapo arrest and the meth busts.
“They were instructed to stop working with us,” said Donahue, the former regional DEA chief. “And then that unit was disbanded.”
The DEA losses began piling up. The Mexican government dissolved the federal police. They were replaced by a new national guard, whose leader had no interest in U.S. training or a DEA liaison unit. The sniffer flights ended.
The U.S. agents thought López Obrador “would take out a room here, a room there — not demolish the whole house,” said another retired DEA official who had worked in Mexico. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because his current employer still does business with the agency.
The pullback went beyond the DEA. Amid a broad austerity drive, the Mexican government slashed the staff in the U.S.-based liaison offices of Mexico’s police, attorney general’s office, and tax and customs agencies. Mexico removed its team from the National Targeting Center in Sterling, Va., where U.S. officials tracked planes and ships suspected of transporting drugs as well as suspicious travelers. Extraditions of Mexican suspects to the United States slowed.
Some U.S. diplomats thought López Obrador had an instinctive mistrust of American technology. He rejected a U.S. offer to provide six giant X-ray scanners to look for drugs in trucks crossing the U.S. border. Also nixed were handheld detectors for port authorities to identify narcotics or chemicals used in the production of synthetic drugs. Millions of dollars in anti-drug aid for Mexico was returned to the U.S. Treasury.
For the new Mexican president, sovereignty was the bigger concern. His team was astonished to discover how much the U.S. government quietly pulled levers in the country. For example, U.S. officials were training police, prosecutors and prison officials in Mexican states — many led by López Obrador’s opponents.
The Mexican government didn’t have a clear picture of what the United States was up to, according to Martha Bárcena, who was López Obrador’s ambassador to Washington at the time. And there was no process to jointly evaluate how effective the programs were.
A U.S. official involved in the program denied that the federal government was kept out of the loop, or that there was any “political map” for distributing the aid. Velasco, the Foreign Ministry official, said the incoming government had realized that some equipment donated by the United States was barely used because of maintenance and training problems. “We wanted to analyze more closely what we were doing” before accepting more, he said.
The DEA and U.S. congressional investigators would later conclude that 2019 — López Obrador’s first year in office — was when Mexico became the top source of fentanyl reaching the United States, as its cartels took advantage of a crackdown in China.
Yet the Mexicans weren’t the only ones who missed signs of the looming crisis. Trump’s priority was to slow migration and build a border wall, not fight narcotics trafficking. To the frustration of Mexican officials, he named three interim DEA directors during his tenure.
“What we should have been doing was continuing to focus on drugs, and in practice, it shifted to other aspects of border management, even before López Obrador came in,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015.
Less than a year into López Obrador’s term, his strategy suddenly seemed to take a tougher turn. On Oct. 17, 2019, soldiers and police surrounded a posh townhouse in the Sinaloan capital, Culiacán, and detained Ovidio Guzmán, one of El Chapo’s sons. He was one of the top traffickers of fentanyl and meth to the United States, according to Mexican officials. The U.S. government was requesting his extradition.
It was the kind of operation that Águila would have led before 2019. But this time, the Mexican army was in charge. Its soldiers had no search warrant. As they waited for the paperwork, hundreds of cartel gunmen streamed into the city, some wielding .50-caliber rifles that fired armor-piercing bullets the size of carrots.
Gunmen blocked roads to the airport, preventing the army from flying in reinforcements. The operations base built by Águila had been dismantled. Fearing an all-out battle that could leave hundreds dead, López Obrador told army commanders to let Guzmán go. He remains a fugitive.
LEFT: Soldiers and police detain Ovidio Guzmán, one of El Chapo's sons, outside a townhouse in Culiacán on Oct. 17, 2019. (El País) RIGHT: The mother of Alfredo González Muñoz cries at his wake in Veracruz in October 2019. The soldier died in a shootout that erupted as the Mexican army tried to detain Ovidio Guzmán. (Felix Marquez/AP)
“Ovidio’s escape was the first indication of [López Obrador’s] level of commitment and what costs they were willing to endure to get high-level criminals,” said one high-ranking U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about tensions with Mexico. “If they had gone with the marines, it might have been different.”
Mexican officials have denied they’re less committed to the security partnership. “We’ve continued to work very closely with the United States,” Velasco said, including on the detention of important traffickers.
By that December, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr was getting worried. “I felt the Mexicans were dragging their feet,” he said in an interview. He flew to Mexico City to press for more cooperation, including a greater effort to target fentanyl labs. Within weeks, the navy special forces had returned to the forefront of the anti-drug effort.
The coronavirus pandemic hampered the U.S. effort to restart cooperation, but it was an arrest in a DEA case in October 2020 that nearly severed the relationship.
Salvador Cienfuegos, a former defense minister, was detained as he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on vacation. U.S.-based DEA agents had been investigating the 72-year-old on allegations he worked with drug traffickers during his term from 2012 to 2018.
Mexico’s army leadership was livid. López Obrador had become more dependent on the military for everything from fighting crime groups to building airports. He accused the DEA of relying on flimsy evidence and questioned whether the agency was trying to weaken the Mexican government or its armed forces.
Barr, alarmed that cooperation with Mexico could tank again, agreed to let Cienfuegos return to Mexico in November 2020.
But the damage was done. Mexico’s National Congress passed a law limiting U.S. law enforcement agencies’ access to Mexican officials at all levels. As seizures of fentanyl on the U.S. border rose, the Mexican government held up visas for more than 20 DEA agents.
‘Out of gas’
While on leave from the navy, Águila opened his own private security company in an upscale neighborhood of Mexico City. Only a select clientele knew of it; the firm’s name wasn’t even listed on the directory in the lobby.
But the past wouldn’t go away.
In 2020, the Mexican government’s human rights commission issued a blistering 331-page report examining 26 disappearances in Nuevo Laredo during a six-month stint by the navy special forces. The report didn’t mention names, referring to officials by letters and numbers. It urged federal prosecutors to investigate special forces personnel in the kidnappings — including their commander, “AR-1.”
The number of disappearances would eventually grow to 47. The cases crawled through Mexico’s justice system. By 2022, only four of the kidnappings had led to indictments, and even those ran into trouble. A judge tossed out charges against 23 navy personnel, citing a lack of evidence, and left just seven suspects in jail.
Águila was not charged. The human rights report said he had accompanied special forces troops on a patrol on May 21, 2018, during which they allegedly detained a young man who subsequently disappeared. The navy said its forces had engaged in a firefight with gunmen, who then fled.
Asked about the disappearances, Águila said he was “confident the judicial processes will clarify these incidents properly.”
While no one was convicted in the disappearances, the navy last year issued a rare formal apology to the victims’ families.
It was not the end of Águila’s legal troubles.
In August 2022, a government Truth Commission concluded that a second scandal, the 2014 disappearance of 43 students attending the Ayotzinapa teachers college, had been a “crime of state” involving the army, police and politicians. A vast array of security officials were involved in a subsequent coverup organized by Peña Nieto’s administration, it said, and one of them was Águila. It provided no details of his alleged role and he has not been charged. The navy has denied any illegal actions.
The legacy of the U.S.-Mexican “kingpin strategy” was mixed. Águila’s commandos had smashed several powerful cartels, but the captures did not significantly reduce the supply of drugs or the death toll in Mexico. Old mafia groups fragmented and reemerged under different names, adapting their tactics to stay a step ahead.
U.S. officials say there was little more they could have done to weaken the traffickers, especially given Mexico’s unwillingness to invest more in its justice and security sectors, and to break the links between politicians and crime groups.
“We were too dependent on Águila, but we didn’t have good alternatives,” said Roberta Jacobson, who worked with the admiral when she was U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018.
Yet both sides have acknowledged that the two countries failed to live up to their promises under the Mérida Initiative. While Mexico and the United States built a robust economic partnership, there was no equivalent of NAFTA for security.
The Mexican government had been heartened when President Barack Obama framed his drug strategy as “co-responsibility” — recognizing the role of U.S. narcotics demand. “This was seen as a significant achievement in Mexico,” said Alfonso Motta-Allen, a security analyst and former Mexican diplomat. But, he said, “it was just talk. The lack of trust remained.”
While Trump squarely blamed Mexican cartels for the flood of narcotics reaching the United States, his ambassador to Mexico City, Christopher Landau, came to believe that reducing U.S. consumption of drugs was fundamental. U.S. authorities have seen a boom in the supply of fentanyl and a corresponding surge in overdose deaths, but federal health agencies do not know how many Americans are using the deadly opioid. Major federal programs that monitored drug use were eliminated in the years before the crisis hit U.S. streets.
“If the success of our counternarcotics strategy depends on Mexican law enforcement, we are in trouble,” he said. “They do not have a functional criminal justice system.”
Mexican officials say López Obrador’s strategy has succeeded in turning around steep annual increases in homicides. They note that Mexico is confiscating more fentanyl than ever. In early July, the army and national guard seized a half-ton of the opioid from a warehouse, the largest such bust in history. The president has put the navy in charge of ports to crack down on illegal shipments of precursor chemicals for drugs.
Yet even with the new agreement, known as the Bicentennial Framework, the two sides don’t share a basic understanding of the fentanyl trade.
“Fentanyl consumed in the United States doesn’t come only — or mostly — from Mexican territory,” Ricardo Mejía, Mexico’s undersecretary for public security, said in an interview.
U.S. agents say otherwise, pointing to significant busts in Mexico of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl and the soaring quantities of powder and pills seized along the U.S. southern border.
“If there are more chemicals coming from China and more fentanyl is being produced, the Mexican government and Mexican authorities will have to do more to stop that from happening,” said the DEA’s Milgram. “The vast, vast majority of fentanyl is coming from Mexico and is attributable to the Sinaloa and [Jalisco] cartels.”
After four years, López Obrador’s promise to refocus Mexico’s security strategy on social programs hasn’t weakened the grip of armed groups. He has increasingly turned to Mexico’s military to fight organized crime.
In an echo of the past, the navy special forces have returned to targeting cartel leaders. In July, after a nine-year manhunt, they captured one of the most storied kingpins — Rafael Caro Quintero, wanted in the 1985 killing of a DEA agent.
American drug-war veterans texted one another the stunning news: The raid was led by Águila’s old team.
But the enthusiasm was short-lived. A navy Black Hawk helicopter crashed during the operation, killing 14 commandos.
The López Obrador government said the aircraft ran out of gas.
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Overview: From Mexican labs to U.S. streets, a lethal pipeline