In 2015, Mexico took the "unprecedented step" of approaching the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in order to purchase $1.15 billion in weapons, ammunition, vehicles, aircraft and equipment through the U.S. Department of Defense. In January 2016, Mexico relaxed their restrictions on the presence of armed U.S. personnel within their territory and began permitting U.S. officials to inspect northbound traffic on Mexican soil for the first time ever in order to reduce congestion and "speed cargo through" the inspection process at some of the busiest border crossings. The program was touted as a tremendous achievement in the history of trust between the U.S. and Mexico. According to the DoD establishment, U.S. and Mexican military-to-miltary relations were at an all-time high. Then Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States.

February 2017 was an eventful month for U.S.-Mexico relations.

On 7 February 2017, James Mattis, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, spoke with Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda and Vidal Soberón Sanz, the Mexican Defense and Naval Secretaries, for the first time after a series of canceled meetings supposedly caused by tweets from the new President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Official readout of the introductory call between Mattis, Cienfuegos and Soberón (Department of Defense)

Two days after the introductory call, a joint operation between the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) and Nayarit State Attorney General Edgar Veytia's police forces killed Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez, aka El H2, and at least 11 others supposedly in an aerial assault in Tepic, Nayarit on 9 February 2017. The killings were rumored to be a shakeup within the underworld following the extradition of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera on 17 January 2017, but a closer look at what happened raises questions about the nature of the relationship between the Mexican military and organized crime, and security cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

After news of El H2's demise broke, video footage of the purported confrontation was shared widely on social media showing a helicopter gunship firing an M134 minigun supposedly at a group of sicarios either inside or close to the entrance of a house in the Ampliación Lindavista neighborhood in Tepic. According to reporting in La Jornada, people in the area described several minutes of shooting before the helicopter gunship opened fire. The purported battle was reportedly between the alleged drug traffickers and Mexican Marina, who claimed they had been unable to enter through the roof of the building because they were not a special forces unit trained in fast-roping from a helicopter. Two videos from different vantages shared on social media showed the gunship firing a 7 second burst.

Later, additional security camera footage in which the action was perfectly framed was leaked apparently showing a group of sicarios opening fire into the air. Curiously, gunfire from the ground is not audible in either video of the helicopter gunship firing on the ground. Additional security footage shows short bursts of aerial fire zipping an empty street, hitting a small light-colored sedan or close to it, and tagging a stationary car parked on the corner. [CONTENT WARNING - GRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHS BELOW THE NEXT PARAGRAPH]

The bodies of El H2 and 8 others were found in and around the house. In total, 15 people were killed in 'confrontations' with the Navy in the surrounding area over the course of several days.

But there are inconsistencies with the official versions of events. According to a reporter from Televisa who toured the scene, the second and third floors of the house showed no signs of being inhabited. Also, the footage that was leaked doesn't exactly add up to what the official version of events claimed considering the bodies were in perfect view of the security camera. If footage of the 'sicarios' being killed in a gunfight existed, it almost certainly would have been leaked. It's also remarkable that nearly every sequence of the action was documented on film and yet none of it definitively shows what authorities claim happened.

Something else extremely strange was that the house in which El H2 and the others were killed was two blocks away from State Attorney General Edgar Veytia's residence. Veytia's state police also participated in the operation and Veytia is currently serving a 20-year sentence in the U.S. for his role in a drug trafficking conspiracy involving—you guessed it—El H2.

Taken together, it's not at all implausible to think that H2 and the others may have been lured to Veytia's house and then executed and a confrontation staged by the security forces, which has happened several times in the past.

February 2017 is also the end of the conspiracy charged in the indictment of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the Secretary of Defense during Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, which was unsealed following his arrest at the Los Angeles International Airport on 15 October 2020. According to the allegations in the indictment, Cienfuegos conspired to traffic multiple tons of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin between December 2015 and February 2017 to the United States while laundering the illicit proceeds.

The likely reason that the conspiracy ended in February 2017 was because Salvador Cienfuegos had been working with El H2 until he was killed by the Mexican Navy on 9 February. In their motion to remand Cienfuegos without bail, federal prosecutors described how Cienfuegos worked hand-in-glove with drug traffickers by protecting them from military operations, targeting rivals, guarding drug shipments, expanding territorial control and introducing other corrupt public officials to the H2 drug trafficking network in addition to the multiple thousands of kilos of illegal drugs that he helped them smuggle and profited from. The concept of criminal and state as ontologically opposed entities was once again proven false.

According to court documents and reporting from Anabel Hernández, investigators at the DEA began hearing chatter in intercepted communications about a corrupt high-ranking public official known only as El Padrino (The Godfather) as early as 2012. But it wasn't until 2017 that investigators determined the identity of the Godfather when a DEA informant supplied the H2 trafficking network with a batch of Blackberry phones with custom firmware that was supposed to enable secure communications. The operation succeeded beyond their wildest expectations when one of those devices made its way into the hands of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Unfortunately for the corrupt defense secretary, the device also had a backdoor which enabled remote collection by the DEA.

Apparently, the final straw was when the DEA discovered that Cienfuegos was leaking information about ongoing U.S. investigations to his co-conspirators. How exactly Cienfuegos was getting information about U.S. investigations hasn't been reported yet.

On 15 February 2017, whistleblower Martin Andersen wrote a scathing editorial in the Miami Herald about his former colleague at the William J. Perry Center (WJPC) for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, Craig Deare. The column described Deare's involvement in plotting the 2009 coup in Honduras, in which the military had renditioned the Honduran president to Panama in the middle of the night. The editorial also described how Deare and others at the WJPC had ignored credible allegations about some of the worst human rights violators in Latin America, like Jaime Garcia Covarrubias, a former advisor to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who was eventually charged with the torture and murder of 7 people in 1974. Until he was prosecuted in 2014, Covarrubias was a professor at the WJPC and one of Deare's closest friends according to Andersen.

Andersen wrote the editorial weeks after Deare was appointed as the senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council (NSC) by Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's short-tenured National Security Advisor.

On 17 February 2017, two days after the editorial in the Miami Herald, Deare apparently sabotaged his own employment at the NSC after only 24 days on the job. According to reporting in Politico, Deare had spoken candidly at The Wilson Center about the president's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and the administration's handling of Latin American policy and chaotic management style. He was fired the following day and it was reported by CNN and others that Deare would return to his old position at the National Defense University.

After a confrontational phone call between Presidents Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto on 27 January 2017, it was reported by Dolia Estévez that Craig Deare, then-senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the NSC, along with Admiral Kurt Tidd of U.S. SOUTHCOM and Ambassador Roberta Jacobson had flown to secret meeting with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray in Tapachula, Chiapas on 31 January 2017. The meeting was reportedly about stopping illegal migration from Central America. Both U.S. and Mexican officials would neither confirm or deny the meeting initially.

After the story about the meeting broke, two separate reports by Jorge Medellín revealed additional information, including a confirmation by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico that the meeting had taken place and had been planned "months" in advance, presumably during the transition period at the end of the Obama administration. It was also reported that Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, Commmander of the U.S. Navy Third Fleet, was also present for the meeting and that the U.S. officials had met with Mexican military officials. It's likely that part of the reason for the meeting was to smooth things over after the confrontational phone call and was kept quiet to keep up appearances.

Photo of the plane at the meeting in Tapachula, Chiapas on 31 January 2017 (Jorge Medellín)

According to reporting in Sin Embargo, Deare met with then-Defense Secretary Cienfuegos and Admiral Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz in March of 2017 for a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Inter-American Defense Board. According to Deare, he gave Cienfuegos an autographed copy of his book on US-Mexico military relations, A Tale of Two Eagles.

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On 20 September 2018, a year and a half after the conspiracy charged in the indictment and month after the 2018 presidential election in Mexico, Deare reportedly met with Cienfuegos again when the general traveled to Washington to accept the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington. The trip was the last publicly reported time that the general traveled to the U.S. in any official capacity before his arrest at the Los Angeles International Airport on 15 October 2020, although in their motion to remand Cienfuegos without bail, prosecutors mentioned that his last known trip to the U.S. was in March 2019. It's unclear what Cienfuegos did on that trip.

Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda receiving the William J. Perry Award on 20 September 2018 (Flickr)

On 24 October 2020, a week or so after Cienfuegos was arrested, the Washington Post published a story with comments from current and former U.S. officials expressing the apparent surprise and unequivocal disapproval of the Washington establishment at the news of the arrest, portraying it as a reckless decision by an overzealous Drug Enforcement Administration and/or Justice Department. The story is remarkable and worth reading in its entirety, but one quote from Craig Deare deserves particular attention:

'I would argue that maintaining an effective bilateral relationship is more important than the DEA or Department of Justice getting a scalp,' Deare said. 'The government of Mexico is well within its rights to be upset that we disregarded their sovereignty, their institutions. In effect, we prioritized the wrong thing.'

Taken literally, this could almost be construed as advice. Whether it was meant that way or not is unknowable, and statements like this would never constitute evidence. Nevertheless, this is exactly what officials in Mexico argued.

According to reporting by Vice News and the New York Times, Mexican officials called for the dismissal of the charges against Cienfuegos and threatened to reconsider the security cooperation agreement with the DEA and other U.S. officials if he wasn't released.

The damnedest thing was that it worked. In an unprecedented reversal, the prosecutors submitted a motion to dismiss the case which was granted by the judge.

According to reporting in Emeequis, a fraternal order within the military known as El Sindicato began pressuring current Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval to advocate for the dismissal of charges within hours of Cienfuegos' arrest. Comprised of current and former high-ranking military officials, The Syndicate apparently made it clear to Cresencio Sandoval that they would not sit idly by while the reputation of the armed forces was sullied. Their grievance was that the arrest of Cienfuegos without the diplomatic courtesy of notifying officials in Mexico in advance was a violation of Mexico's sovereignty. They were also unhappy with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's initial reaction to the news of the arrest in which he seemed to side with the DEA. According to reporting, several members of The Syndicate called and visited current Defense Secretary Cresencio Sandoval to inform him that inaction over the issue could result in a revolt among military personnel. To avoid a rebellion within the ranks of the military, the political leadership bowed to the pressure and notified the U.S. that if Cienfuegos was not released, Mexico would be forced to reevaluate their cooperation with the DEA.

On March 29, 2017, Craig Deare wrote an editorial in the Washington Post about the importance of the US-Mexico relationship to the U.S. Defense establishment. According to Deare:

If most Americans are largely unaware of the strength of the bilateral relationship with Mexico, the process by which the Defense Department and its Mexican counterparts have grown closer is even less understood. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of citizens on both sides of the border, senior defense leaders of both countries have managed to construct an excellent cooperative relationship over the past 25 years that has worked to our mutual benefit.

It's unclear what benefits Deare is referring to here. There is more violence and insecurity, more drugs, and more criminal groups than ever before. The only real winner seems to be the U.S. defense industry.