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Mexican lawmakers vote to restrict foreign agents despite U.S. pressure

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s lower house of Congress amended on Tuesday a security law to restrict the presence of foreign agents on Mexican soil, despite U.S. opposition to the legislation amid concerns it could hamper the work of cross-border narcotics investigations.

The amendment, passed by Mexico’s Senate last Wednesday, is widely seen as a broadside against the United States, after weeks of tension with Washington over anti-drug operations.

The proposed law also marks a fresh controversy awaiting U.S. President-elect Joe Biden when he takes office next month.

The legislation does not specifically target the United States, but it was proposed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after a diplomatic bust-up over the arrest of former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles in October on drug charges.

Lopez Obrador, a leftist nationalist, threatened to review security cooperation with Washington after the arrest, which caught his government by surprise. U.S. prosecutors later dropped the charges, pointing to sensitive foreign policy considerations.

Guille Alvarado, a lawmaker in Lopez Obrador’s left-of-center Morena party, said the legislation will protect “our sovereignty.”

The proposal passed 329-98 in the lower house, with 40 lawmakers abstaining. Lopez Obrador has to sign off on the changes before they become official. It was not immediately clear if the lower house modified the bill.

The amendments to the national security law passed by the Senate would force agents working for foreign nations to share information they discover in Mexico, and would strip them of immunity if they commit crimes.

Security analyst Raul Benitez described the reform as a direct response to Cienfuegos’ arrest, and said it was approved too quickly for careful analysis of potential consequences.

“It’s poorly done because of how quickly it passed,” he said. “Without a doubt, it can generate tension between the United States and Mexico.”

Making foreign agents share information with their Mexican counterparts is likely to concern U.S. officials, who say many Mexican institutions are infiltrated by cartels.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr had opposed the bill, saying it would benefit criminal groups and make bilateral cooperation more difficult.

Among the more onerous requirements in the bill passed by the Senate, agents’ meetings with local officials would have to be approved by a new federal government security committee and a foreign ministry official would have to be present at those meetings.

Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Michael Perry

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