Mexico president denies report of allegations that close associates took drug money during campaign

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied allegations contained in a U.S. media report published Thursday about a U.S. inquiry into accusations that people close to him took money from drug traffickers shortly before his 2018 election and again after he was president.

The New York Times story cited unidentified U.S. officials familiar with the now shelved inquiry and noted that a formal investigation was not opened, nor was it known how much of the informants’ allegations were independently confirmed. It is the second time in recent weeks that the foreign press has published stories signaling that the U.S. government has looked into alleged contacts between López Obrador allies and drug cartels.

“It’s all completely false,” López Obrador said during his morning press briefing, criticizing the Times and reading aloud the reporter’s phone number in a move that triggered an investigation by a Mexican government watchdog agency.

“The U.S. government is going to have to address this,” he said. Later Thursday U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “There is no investigation into President López Obrador.”

In late January, ProPublica, Deutsche Welle and InSight Crime published stories describing an earlier U.S. investigation into whether López Obrador campaign aides took money from drug traffickers in exchange for facilitating their operations during an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2006.

In that instance, López Obrador placed blame squarely at the feet of the U.S. government and wondered aloud why he should continue discussing issues like immigration with a government that was trying to damage him.

López Obrador is in the final months of his presidency, but his protégé Claudia Sheinbaum is leading polls to replace him in the June 2 election.

The president has faced criticism for not aggressively pursuing drug cartels like his predecessors. He campaigned on an approach of “hugs, not bullets” to address the social ills that contribute to building the cartels’ ranks.

Last week, Roman Catholic bishops confirmed they had tried to negotiate a peace deal between rival cartels to spare violence-plagued communities in the southern state of Guerrero.

The president said he approved of such talks.

The inquiry into López Obrador’s 2018 campaign was closed, according to the Times, after a U.S. investigation into Mexico’s former defense secretary set off a diplomatic row. The U.S. eventually dropped the drug trafficking charges against former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos and sent him back to Mexico where he was promptly cleared and released.

López Obrador publicly attacked the Drug Enforcement Administration at the time, shaking cooperation between the two governments.

Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the DEA, feared that the latest dispute could damage U.S.-Mexico cooperation on fighting drug trafficking, in much the same way as the previous round of stories about U.S. investigations published by various media outlets in late January.

“It’s apparently just based on informants, there’s no evidence,” Vigil said of the Times report. “You’ve got to be really careful with the accusations that you make.”

He noted that traffickers have sought in the past to tarnish politicians with campaign contributions the candidate may have known nothing about.

But on Thursday, the president aimed more of his ire at the Times. López Obrador is a harsh critic of Mexico’s press, attacking their coverage of his administration almost daily.

The president displayed on a large screen and read aloud a letter from the Times’ Mexico correspondent — including her phone number — laying out the story and requesting comment.

“This is a troubling and unacceptable tactic from a world leader at a time when threats against journalists are on the rise,” The New York Times said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter. “We have since published the findings from this investigation and stand by our reporting and the journalists who pursue the facts where they lead.”

The Mexican government’s autonomous public information agency, which also has domain over the protection of personal information, said later Thursday in a statement that it will open an investigation into López Obrador’s publicizing of the Times reporter’s phone number. It said it was awaiting a formal complaint.

The agency, known by its Spanish initials INAI, has itself been on the receiving end of the president’s attacks. López Obrador, who has been repeatedly criticized for a lack of transparency, has said it and other autonomous agencies are unnecessary.

López Obrador has previously publicized information from the government tax bureau about Mexican journalists who have criticized his administration.

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