Why the DEA’s Private Plane Was Forced Out of Mexico

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

The latest setback to U.S. anti-narcotics efforts in Mexico came earlier this month, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was forced to remove its flagship plane from the country for the first time in some 30 years.

According to a report by Reuters, Mexican officials revoked the plane’s parking space in a hangar at the Toluca airport about 25 miles outside of Mexico City. The plane, a Beechcraft twin-turboprop King Air, can carry about ten passengers and was often deployed for elite-level ops in Mexico and Central America.

Before being booted off Mexican soil and relocated to Texas, the King Air had “played a key role in capturing some of the world's most powerful drug lords, and was used on raids against former Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman,” Reuters wrote.

Mike Vigil, the former chief of the DEA’s International Bureau, told The Daily Beast that the plane was a vital tool for “operations requiring the rapid movement of personnel and equipment. It also allowed agents to avoid driving through cartel areas of conflict [and] supported all DEA offices throughout Mexico.”

Vigil added that the loss of the aircraft “will hamper initiatives and place agents in unnecessary danger,” and described an incident from his tenure in Mexico in which the plane was used to ferry DEA Agents to the state of Colima for a raid on methamphetamine labs belonging to the Colima Cartel. “The aircraft was used to swoop down on clandestine laboratories and El Chapo hideouts. It was essential to successful tactical operations,” he said.

The move comes at a time of increasingly fraught relations between the DEA and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is often known by the sobriquet AMLO. In a speech on May 12, the day after news broke that the plane had been forced out of the country, AMLO stated that his administration “cared for” cartel members just as it did for soldiers in the nation’s armed forces, because the criminals “are also human beings.”

The DEA’s Vigil also pointed out that the populist president AMLO has a track record of hampering U.S. law enforcement programs in Mexico as part of his “Abrazos no Balazos” [“Hugs not Bullets”] campaign, which aims to take a softer approach than his predecessors to organized crime.

“The first three years of President Lopez Obrador’s administration have been disastrous for the DEA. He has placed limitations on the activities of the agency, eliminated the Sensitive Investigative Unit, dismantled Plan Merida and now the most recent blow involving the DEA aircraft,” said Vigil, who added that AMLO has also reneged on diplomatic immunity for U.S. agents.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends the daily briefing at on February 25, 2022 in Colima, Mexico. </p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> Photo by Leonardo Montecillo/Agencia Press South/Getty Images </div>

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends the daily briefing at on February 25, 2022 in Colima, Mexico.

Photo by Leonardo Montecillo/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

A federal law enforcement official in Mexico who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast only under condition of anonymity, said that prior to AMLO “it was very different because there was a lot of interaction between the U.S. and Mexico. There was great cooperation in counterdrug efforts.”

But that’s all changed under AMLO, the official said. “There has been a rupture because the U.S. no longer has confidence in Mexico. We no longer have a functional government in Mexico… The current administration operates with a tremendous ego.”

Bilateral security cooperation further deteriorated after former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles in October of 2020 on charges of conspiring with the H-2 Cartel. At that time, Mexico threatened to expel DEA agents from the country, eventually leading to Cienfuegos' release and the charges against him being dropped. But the damage had been done, and AMLO then pushed through a series of reforms that limited the DEA's freedoms, including a law forcing them to share all information with Mexican law enforcement.

The AMLO administration had also curtailed the DEA’s use of the plane at Toluca even prior to rescinding its parking space, and had begun to mandate written requests two weeks in advance of any flight.

“Those restrictions had already made it impossible to carry out missions that required speed and flexibility,” Vigil said. "You can't know when you'll need to provide immediate tactical support weeks in advance."

Vigil also said that restrictions to Mexican airspace, combined with the added distance of flying from Texas, meant DEA operations were essentially stopped as parts of Mexico remain inaccessible by car.

“The warring cartels operating in many of the Mexican states establish roadblocks on major highways making it impossible to travel by road. Mexican security forces offer no protection to the agents making the situation worse,” he said.

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Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the research director at C/O Futures LLC, a US-based security consultancy, said in an email that the DEA’s Toluca-based plane had been “politically symbolic of Mexico-U.S. anti-narcotics cooperation,” and referred to the revocation of the plane’s hangar privileges as a sign that the DEA’s role is being “incrementally reduced” in Mexico.

“I’d expect we will see additional moves like this during the rest of AMLO’s [term] as he continues with his populist policies,” he said. The AMLO’s anti-DEA strategy involves “trying to promote the narrative of the dignity of Mexico—the DEA activities are an infringement upon state sovereignty and that Mexico had been forced into the Drug War via [former president Felipe] Calderón under pressure by the United States.”

Such rhetoric must be a delight to high-ranking traffickers who are likely “elated because it has allowed them to become more powerful and expand their operations into virtually every Mexican state. [AMLO’s position] is one of the reasons the U.S. is being flooded with deadly drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine,” said Vigil.

Bunker agreed, saying that the “‘hugs’ rhetoric is far better for [capos] than arrest or kill-teams being sent after them, so they have to increasingly love AMLO at this point.”

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