Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power looking to redefine the Mexican people’s relationship with their government. His first act was an overhaul of the country’s intelligence service. But against a backdrop of growing domestic and international security challenges, the reform is beginning to look like a missed opportunity.

Strategic intelligence is the essential art of seeing the invisible, or so the saying goes.  Governments need accurate, actionable data not just to support day-to-day operations, but also to assess threats, to read both their enemies and allies, and to project power.

In Mexico, which saw more than 34,500 murders in 2019 at a nationwide average of 95 deaths per day, strategic vision seems like a luxury. Stopping the spiral of violence is the imperative. And so it is not surprising that with many eyes focused on what was the country’s most violent year yet, few noticed the death and rebirth of Mexico’s intelligence agency.

In his first act as president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) introduced reforms in November 2018 that demised the country’s civilian intelligence service, the Center for Research and National Security, better known as CISEN. Part of a broader agenda that aims to transform the Mexican state, the reforms replaced CISEN with a new National Intelligence Center (CNI), which aligns to a newly created cabinet-level agency, the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (SSCP). The majority of CISEN’s 3,500 employees were transferred to the CNI and files from CISEN’s secret archives, including a dossier on AMLO himself, will soon be open to the public.

As suggested by the new name but old staff, the reforms appear to rebrand Mexican intelligence in order to restore public trust. As a domestic service created under notorious former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the twilight of Mexican one-party rule, CISEN became synonymous with political espionage. In one recent example, a CISEN agent was caught tailing an opposition candidate in Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections.

The agency was also implicated in a 2017 mobile phone hacking scandal that featured the use of Israeli-origin spyware against politicians, journalists, and activists. Data obtained from a freedom of information request by media outlet Artistegui Noticias revealed that prior to the scandal, CISEN requests to intercept communications rose from roughly 200 in 2012 to over 800 in 2016. No rationale for the intercept requests was disclosed, but when they came to light, few believed they were legitimate.

While politically popular, the rebranding has done little to address the broader question of longstanding ambiguity on the role that Mexico’s intelligence agency is to play in the country’s national security. CISEN historically operated as a hybrid service with a broad remit that varied with each presidency. The latest reforms fail to specialize or focus its successor, the CNI, on intelligence collection that informs strategy. Indeed, the changes look more likely to perpetuate strategic confusion inside the Mexican state.

That confusion begins with the blending of national security and public security. The CNI, like CISEN before it, is ostensibly a national security agency that deals with threats to Mexican sovereignty, democracy, and institutions. Yet, it is positioned as part of a public security body, the SSCP, which oversees law enforcement, disaster prevention, and the prison system. This unusual structure ensures an eclectic remit for the CNI.

In its first year, the new agency worked on a pilot project to provide municipal police with mobile access to crime data, and a national arrests registry that allows citizens to check the status of detainees online. Such responsibilities are strange use of an intelligence service but reminiscent of how the Mexican government historically used CISEN, which was charged with tasks ranging from counterterrorism and counterintelligence to health pandemics and Mexico’s polygraph program.

Then there is the question of geographic scope. The CNI inherited CISEN’s structure as a domestic agency with a small foreign arm. That arm allowed it to collaborate, for example, with U.S. and Canadian services and Spain’s National Police. However, limited resources and tolerance for overseas operations, a shifting mandate at home, and an increasing role in supporting the military assault on Mexico’s cartels from 2006 onward kept CISEN from becoming a robust collector of international intelligence. The CNI risks a similar fate if it continues to focus on providing data to domestic law enforcement projects.

To report on the strategic challenges the country faces, Mexico needs a foreign intelligence service with a small domestic arm. It also needs to allow that service to specialize in national security issues and provide direct decision support to AMLO and the country’s other senior policymakers. 

Making the CNI a foreign service would allow it to collect actionable intelligence on the overseas money laundering and procurement networks of groups that play an outsized role in the country’s violence. The Sinaloa Cartel, which outgunned federal forces in a now infamous failed security operation last October, has a footprint in 50 countries. The rival Jalisco Cartel New Generation, which rose to international fame as the first crime group to shoot down a Mexican military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, operates throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Liaison relationships with local services in those regions could help to constrain the finances and firepower that enable both groups to threaten the Mexican state.

An externally focused agency would also be better positioned to provide AMLO with insight into the region’s volatile politics. The current American administration increasingly weaponizes the U.S. economy and the dollar with financial sanctions and tariffs, threatening intermittently to impede Mexico’s access to its largest export market. Mass protests have shaken governments across South America and sent at least one former president to Mexico in exile. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economic collapse has scattered two million refugees across the Americas, with Venezuelan immigration to Mexico growing at least 114% over the past four years.

Against this backdrop, AMLO’s intelligence reforms look like a missed opportunity. Remaking Mexico’s intelligence service as a protective rather than a repressive force is a healthy and welcome change. But AMLO’s agents are not positioned to support strategic decision-making, and that could leave him flying blind to the dynamics likely to shape Mexico’s future for years to come.


Andrew Rennemo has held roles in U.S. government focused on transnational threats and as a management consultant at PwC for risk and compliance and forensic investigation in Mexico.