Mexico's president condemns reports of an old US investigation into alleged drug campaign donations

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president on Wednesday condemned media reports that the U.S. government launched an abortive investigation into claims that drug traffickers may have contributed money to his failed 2006 campaign.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador immediately interpreted the reports as a U.S. attack on his government and his Morena party before Mexico’s June 2 presidential election.

MEXICO’S PRESIDENT CONDEMNS REPORTS OF AN OLD US INVESTIGATION INTO ALLEGED DRUG CAMPAIGN DONATIONS

The controversy threatened to revive bilateral tensions just as both countries head into presidential elections, and could damage U.S.-Mexico cooperation on fighting drug trafficking, in much the same way as the 2020 U.S. arrest of a former Mexican defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos.

The stories described testimony by traffickers that they passed about $2 million to confidants of López Obrador in 2006, when he narrowly lost the race for president.

No concrete proof was found and the 2010 investigation was later dropped, but López Obrador suggested that U.S. agencies were behind the new round of reports about the old allegations.

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The Mexican president has dismissed old reports of financial contributions to his 2006 campaign by drug traffickers. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

“It is completely false, it’s slander,” López Obrador said Wednesday at his daily media briefing. “I am not complaining about the journalists … I’m complaining about the U.S. government, for allowing these immoral practices that violate political ethics.”

“It’s not the journalist, it’s higher up,” the president said, without specifying what U.S. agency he was accusing of being behind the stories.

López Obrador has long complained about the actions of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Mexico, and following the arrest of Cienfuegos, he imposed restrictions on U.S. agents in Mexico.

Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the DEA, feared that the latest dispute could mark a similar decline in cooperation.

“It’s just terrible, it’s going to mean more drugs heading to the United States and more violence in Mexico,” Vigil said. “It’s worse than when Cienfuegos was arrested.”

“This is a direct attack against him. Secondly, he views it as an impact on the presidential campaign or in the presidential elections that are coming up,” Vigil said. “Now, if we thought the relationships with Mexico were bad, they are going to go from worse to almost nonexistent.”

Claudia Sheinbaum, the candidate for López Obrador‘s Morena party, holds a commanding lead in opinion polls for the June 2 election. But Mexico’s continued high rates of violence — and Sheinbaum’s pledge to continue López Obrador’s policy of not confronting drug cartels — are one of the governing party’s most vulnerable flanks.

According to reports by ProPublica, Insight Crime and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, the DEA was investigating claims by a cooperating drug trafficker and a former campaign adviser that leaders of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel gave the money to close confidants of López Obrador in 2006.

But a wiretap of a conversation between the DEA informants and one of López Obrador’s top aides didn’t confirm the donations, and U.S. officials later ordered the politically sensitive case closed.

López Obrador is notoriously touchy about anything that tarnishes his own moral authority or reputation, upon which his entire party rests.

But the fact that the three stories were published almost simultaneously on Tuesday made López Obrador and his supporters suspect that some powerful entity was behind the wave of bad press.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University, said that the timing made some in Mexico think the story had been leaked to reporters by some U.S. official.

“It is kind of the reaction to the publication of three stories about the same issue that were published at the same time. And that’s also something that has been questioned,” she said.

López Obrador is no stranger to being quizzed about how he financed his unprecedented three presidential campaigns in 2006, 2012 and 2018, when he finally won the presidency. Campaign operators linked to López Obrador have been caught on video several times receiving large sums of cash, but with no proof he knew about it.

But many other politicians in Mexico have been involved in campaign finance scandals, Correa-Cabrera notes.

“That’s also an open question about several politicians and presidential campaigns, not only Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but people in power over all,” she said.

Beyond concerns the stories could affect Mexico’s elections, Correa-Cabrera notes the real impact could be on the U.S. election in 2024.

“I think it also has to do with the attacks that Republicans have publicly expressed and of course the proposals of declaring a war on cartels,” she said. “This adds to the idea that could be utilized easily by Republican politicians … ‘Mexico is a narco state, we need to do something about it, we need to send our troops there.’”

López Obrador was already angry at perceived American interference. He claimed that the U.S. arrest of Cienfuegos, the former defense secretary, was part of a DEA plot to weaken Mexico’s armed forces and allow U.S. agents free reign in Mexico.

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Cienfuegos was arrested at a Los Angeles airport in 2020, accused of participating in an international drug trafficking and money laundering network.

Mexico demanded Cienfuegos’ release, reportedly threatening to expel U.S. agents unless he was returned. The United States dropped the charges and returned him. Mexico quickly absolved Cienfuegos of any wrongdoing, and later held up visas for U.S. agents and restricted the work they could do in Mexico.

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