How Cooperation with Corrupt Governments can Cause More Pain than Gain


Over one-hundred dead in a small town a few miles away from the Texan border. All left behind brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers wondering why. Was it a failure of Mexican law enforcement or the fault of US intelligence incorrectly distinguishing between adversaries and allies?

In 2011, the Los Zetas cartel stormed through the town of Allende, Mexico, massacring entire families and razing buildings to the ground. Besides being an especially brutal demonstration of cartel violence, this situation illustrates the risk of intelligence leaks created by corrupt governments. These deaths were, in part, due to a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) trust-exercise gone wrong. When the DEA shared sensitive information regarding a source’s location with Mexican officials, the information was leaked to the Los Zetas—resulting in the massacre of over one-hundred people.

When addressing international threats (like drug trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, or even global warming), a frequent response is to increase rapport and pursue cooperation with partners across the globe. But there should be an element of caution when pursuing transparent cooperation and intelligence sharing. When dealing with corrupt governments like Mexico, the US’s own allies can present the greatest threat of espionage.

Corruption Leads to Leaks

Corruption in the Mexican government is a well-researched and well-known fact. According to the World Population Review, Mexico is the third most corrupt nation in the world [1]. Stories of Mexican officials exchanging their access to classified information for personal gain are prolific. In the words of Andres Martinez-Fernandez with the American Enterprise Institute, “Corruption compromises Mexico’s security institutions and turns key officials into allies of the drug cartels they are meant to combat.” [2]

Corruption is prevalent among local police officers as well as among the highest authorities in the nation. In 2019, Mexico’s former security minister, Genaro Garciá Luna, was arrested in Dallas, Texas for accepting over $10 million from cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in exchange for intelligence reports on official investigations and operations. [3]

  Later, in 2020, the former Mexican Defense Secretary, General Salvador Cienfuegós, was arrested in Miami for collaborating with drug cartels. Claiming to be informing the public, Mexico published the classified report compiled by the US Department of Justice, potentially putting sources and collection methods at risk. [4]

The most recent example of Mexican officials sharing information with cartels comes from a recent cyber-attack. In September, hacker group Guacamaya released over six terabytes of data from the Mexican Ministry of Defense’s servers [5]. The hack confirmed that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador ordered the release of cartel leader Ovidio Guzmán (“El Raton”). The President later met with his mother, the wife of former cartel leader “El Chapo” Guzman. The government was also aware that several soldiers were actively selling tactical equipment, weapons, and information to cartel sicarios. Most troubling, the hack revealed that the Mexican military offered to provide the cartel with the location of a threatened regional prosecutor who was investigating cartel members for drug and homicide charges.

Lessons Learned in Allende

The Allende massacre is one of the most sobering examples of the consequences of intelligence leaks from corrupt officials. In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration obtained traceable cellphone identification numbers for two of the Los Zetas’s most wanted leaders from a source located in Allende, Mexico. The source was a former cartel member who had been arrested in the U.S. and recruited to return to Mexico as a source. [6]

To some degree, the Mexican government, rather than the cartels themselves, presents the greatest espionage threat. Because a level of cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. is necessary, the risks of information being shared with cartels is great.

The DEA released this information to a special Mexican federal police unit that frequently collaborated with U.S. forces. In return, one or several yet-unidentified members of this unit traded the source’s information and location to the Los Zetas cartel. Furious, Los Zetas went on a revenge rampage. Many died as a result.

Like most of their intelligence and police forces, Mexico never allowed the DEA to investigate this special unit and discouraged close scrutiny. One of the unit’s supervisors turned himself in to U.S. authorities, and was charged with sharing information with cartel leaders. Mexico erected a monument in remembrance of the massacre, but has never investigated the source of the leak. Despite a continuing legacy of questionable actions, the unit was not shut down until April, 2022. [7]

A Continued Pattern

Sadly, it is a reoccurring theme that the information and resources provided to corrupt governments for one purpose are often used to achieve opposing purposes. Not only is this illustrated through intelligence leaks, but most recently in the use of software. Citing security issues caused by violence and organized crime, Mexico has begun importing spyware capable of hacking, tracking, and corrupting electronic devices. Rather than target cartel members, the government has used this technology to harass journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists.

Most of this technology can (and has) made its way into the hands of cartel members. The DEA and various independent researchers have pointed out that even if a cartel cannot build its own software, cartels can easily bribe corrupt officials to hack targets on their behalf. “The line between organized crime and the government is nonexistent or frequently very blurry,” observed Luis Fernando Garciá, the director of R3D, a Mexican digital rights organization.  [8]

What Next?

To some degree, the Mexican government, rather than the cartels themselves, presents the greatest espionage threat. Because a level of cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. is necessary, the risks of information being shared with cartels is great. Due to this fact, intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico will continue to present a significant amount of risk.

This is not to say that the U.S. should utterly disregard the sovereignty of another government and operate entirely autonomously in a foreign nation. Rather, this should be viewed as cautionary reminder about the dangers of pursuing completely transparent cooperation. The U.S. should continue to promote American independence while clearly respecting Mexican autonomy.

While the Mexican government should not be viewed as an enemy, drug cartels’ history of bribing and infiltrating the Mexican government at multiple levels means that close cooperation will continue to present a serious espionage threat. As Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America said, “Organized crime[‘s] main mode of operation is to corrupt and penetrate your allies. Any U.S. strategy that loses sight of this high-level corruption is doomed to failure.” [9]


So what should the U.S. do when our own ally is—to some degree—aiding our enemies? The answer is that the U.S. needs to be aware of the risks, understand the consequences of oversharing information, and learn from leaks. Agencies should not continue sharing information with units that have proven untrustworthy (such as the federal police unit at Allende). Agents should carefully determinewhich individuals are trustworthy and which are not. The U.S. should support (financially and physically) those who prove to be trustworthy, and continue to closely monitor and limit the information given to officials who are not. Essentially, the U.S. needs to keep their friends close and their enemies closer.

[1] “Most Corrupt Countries 2022,” World Population Review, accessed 28 November 2022,

[2] “Money laundering and corruption in Mexico: confronting threats to prosperity, security, and the US-Mexico relationship,” Andres Martinez-Fernandez, American Enterprise Institute, 23 February 2021

[3] “Why the drug war can’t be won—Cartel corruption goes all the way to the top,” Jeremy Kryt, Daily Beast, 14 December 2019,

[4] Organized Crime in Mexico and the Evolving Government Response, Global Americans, Evan Ellis, 18 August 2022,

[5] “Leaked Documents show members of Mexico’s military sold weapons and information to cartels,” 08 October 2022, Vallarta Daily News,

[6] “How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico,” Ginger Thompson, ProPublica, 12 June 2017,

[7] “The DEA’s elite police unit in Mexico was actually dirty as hell,” Keegan Hamilton, Vice World News, 26 April 2022,

[8] “It’s a free-for-all: how hi-tech spyware ends up in the hands of Mexico’s cartels,” Nina Lakhani and Cecile Schilis-Gallego, 07 December 2020,

[9] “Why the drug war can’t be won—Cartel corruption goes all the way to the top,” Jeremy Kryt, Daily Beast, 14 December 2019,