The U.S. government is frustrated that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is prioritizing social spending for the benefit of his people over addressing matters that are important to the U.S., according to an excerpt of a leaked top-secret intelligence document. Part of a cache of classified intelligence records that were leaked on the platform Discord earlier this year, the document highlights the growing discontent by U.S. officials toward Mexico’s president, who has significantly limited U.S. law enforcement agencies’ role in the war on drugs, as fentanyl trafficked by Mexican criminal groups has worsened the overdose crisis in the U.S. and violence in Mexico.
“President Lopez Obrador’s federal budget for 2023 gives priority to social spending and signature infrastructure projects, rather than the investments needed to address bilateral issues with the US such as migration, security, and trade,” reads the document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Lopez Obrador’s meager investment in migration, security, and trade-related organizations will probably undermine Mexico’s ability to follow through on commitments to stem the flow of irregular migrants and fentanyl to the US and boost economic competitiveness in North America.”
López Obrador’s 2023 federal budget, presented to the Mexican Congress last fall, does increase funding for social programs, including a significant raise for the pension provided to older Mexicans. It also prioritizes large infrastructure projects, which are mostly concentrated in southern states of the country.
“The crisis of fentanyl is due to the negligence of pharmaceuticals in the U.S.,” said Carlos Pérez Ricart, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “I don’t know what [the Director of National Intelligence] thinks the alternative is. Do they expect us to end our social spending and infrastructure policy to tend to a problem that belongs to the U.S.?”
The document, from February of this year, is part of a trove of records leaked to a Discord server, allegedly by Jack Douglas Teixeira, a member of the Air National Guard, and posted online by DDoSecrets, a collective that publishes leaked documents. While reporting on the documents has mostly focused on intelligence on the war in Ukraine, some records include U.S. insight into other regions. Last month, the Washington Post reported on documents showing U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communication between Mexican cartel members. After the Drug Enforcement Administration carried out an operation in Mexico and U.S. prosecutors filed charges against 28 members of the Sinaloa Cartel, López Obrador responded with anger toward the U.S. intelligence gathering efforts, saying it was “abusive, arrogant interference.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Drug Enforcement Administration did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did López Obrador’s spokesperson.
During his tenure, López Obrador has done away with much of the security collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico — a decadeslong relationship that ramped up in the mid-2000s — by placing stringent limits on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and other U.S. law enforcement agencies operating in Mexico. Yet the Mexican president has continued to closely cooperate with the U.S. on migration. Just this month, he reached a deal with the Biden administration, allowing the U.S. to deport non-Mexicans to the country.
“It seems a little naive,” said Pérez Ricart of the Director of National Intelligence’s apparent frustration with Mexico’s approach to migration. “Mexico, in a large part, is doing the U.S.’s dirty work in terms of migration.”
López Obrador took office in 2018 in a landslide victory, calling his populist political project “the Fourth Transformation,” a reference to three major leaps in Mexican history: the independence from Spain, the Reform (a mid-1800s war between conservatives and liberals), and the Mexican Revolution. His election was a welcome change for many Mexicans, who had grown tired of the decadeslong rule of the two center- and right-wing parties.
Since then, his relationship with the U.S. has been erratic and wracked with contradictions. López Obrador has spent the past five years walking a tightrope: He has had to balance the interests of the U.S., the Mexican business class, and his base — providing concessions to all. Support for López Obrador among Mexicans remains relatively high, with approval ratings at 65 percent, most likely due to the social welfare programs he has introduced. López Obrador’s government has raised the minimum wage and provided cash and food assistance to older Mexicans, as well as scholarships for students nationwide.
López Obrador’s government has also placed major emphasis on infrastructure and development projects in Mexico. The projects include a new international airport and a railway that will connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which seeks to compete with the Panama Canal. Another major project, called the Maya Train, is reaching completion. The controversial project, which seeks to traverse the Yucatán Peninsula, has received ire from left- and right-wing critics alike for its environmental damage. It has already taken out vast sectors of the rainforest.
“What AMLO has been doing has been investing in infrastructure projects in the south of the country,” Earl Anthony Wayne, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015, told The Intercept. “That’s less of a priority for us” — the United States — “because we trade mostly with the center and northern parts of the country where all the productive enterprises are.”
Mexico’s president has also continued to acquiesce to the U.S. government’s demand for migration enforcement, at much risk to migrants and asylum-seekers. In 2018, his government created the National Guard — replacing the Mexican Federal Police, a force historically plagued with corruption — and later tasked it with stopping migrants from traveling north.
His government also readily agreed to Remain in Mexico, a policy that forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their day in court — risking kidnapping, extortion, rape, torture, and death — and accepted migrants expelled from the U.S. under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allowed U.S. officials to turn away asylum-seekers to supposedly prevent the spread of Covid-19. President Joe Biden kept Title 42 in place for the first three years of his presidency, finally lifting it this month.
Meanwhile, López Obrador’s investment in social programs could also be seen as a way to curb migration, even if the U.S. doesn’t see it that way. “What is most striking is they’re not linking social spending to migration,” said Stephanie Leutert, the director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the Director of National Intelligence document. “They’re not thinking about the many Mexican migrants who still have to leave because of a lack of security in parts of the country, but also a lack of development and lack of opportunity.”
Leutert speculates the Director of National Intelligence’s frustration could be toward the Mexican government’s meager funding of refugee programs and minimal attempts to root out corruption within the migration enforcement apparatus and the trafficking networks. Former ambassador Wayne agrees.
“Would it be better if they invested more in their refugee and migration services? Yes,” said Wayne. “So it is certainly true that there’s room for more investment in their whole migration services and how they handle this.”
As the fentanyl epidemic continues to ravage the U.S., with nearly 71,000 overdoses in 2021 alone, the U.S. government wants Mexico to more aggressively combat criminal and narcotrafficking organizations.
In 2006, when the Mexican drug war was launched, the Mexican government deployed the military to the streets to combat organized crime. The U.S. agencies played a leading role in operations against criminal groups and also supplied weapons and training to Mexican forces.
López Obrador ran on a campaign to reduce the country’s militarization and declared the Mérida Initiative, a 2008 security agreement, dead. In 2021, however, the Biden administration and the Mexican government signed a new security agreement called the Bicentennial Framework, similar to the Mérida Initiative.
Still, López Obrador has indeed limited U.S. security involvement in Mexico. In 2021, he did away with the leading unit that was trained by, and collaborated with, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The dissolution of the Sensitive Investigative Unit, which was part of the Mexican Federal Police, was a major blow to the bilateral security cooperation. The Mexican Congress also significantly limited the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies’ operations in Mexico after the attempted arrest and prosecution of the former secretary of national defense. The reduction in bilateral security collaboration has led Republican representatives to call for U.S. military intervention in Mexico to combat cartels and to designate them as terrorist organizations.
Under López Obrador, the Mexican government has also given a lot more power to the Mexican armed forces, which have historically been plagued with allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. The armed forces are now in charge of airports, hospital construction, and other civilian institutions, along with major infrastructure projects. Last fall, the National Guard, which was supposed to be under civilian control, was integrated into the military under the secretary of national defense. It was a significant step forward toward the further militarization of the country.
“The impression I have is that for many years, the bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico prioritized the interests of the U.S.”
Violence in Mexico, meanwhile, continues to soar, in part a consequence of arms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico.
“The impression I have is that for many years, the bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico prioritized the interests of the U.S. It prioritized that drugs do not reach the U.S.,” Pérez Ricart said. Yet the U.S. has offered little to address Mexico’s concerns, such as the flow of weapons into the country. “This is called ‘cooperation?’”