In December, Mexico’s former chief of public security, Genaro Garcia Luna, was arrested in Texas for allegedly taking bribes from the powerful Sinaloa cartel while in office from 2006 to 2012 in exchange for safe passage of drugs. Then, on Thursday, former Defense Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested in Los Angeles. Prosecutors accuse Cienfuegos, who was Defense Secretary from 2012 to 2018, of using his position to assist the H-2 cartel to expand its territorial control, according to thousands of intercepted messages.
As the two men worked for different Mexican administrations and are being accused of helping different drug cartels, it is impossible to rule out a possible link between the Mexican government and organized crime as a short-term problem linked to a single president or a single gang of drugs.
Instead, taken together, prosecutors are likely to offer an unprecedented window for suspected high-level institutional decay of Mexico’s security system.
Both trials will take place in the US federal courts in the coming months. For the time being, it is unclear how long the United States has known about the alleged criminal ties between the two former employees, both of whom are already American interlocutors.
Garcia Luna denied the charges. Cienfuegos has not made public comments since the arrest. Both are held without bail.
The United States has long had Mexico’s cooperation to stem the flow of drugs to the border. But at the same time, American officials have complained about the systemic corruption that frustrated this partnership.
For decades, it was mostly low-level Mexican officials who were accused of having links to drug cartels, although US officials suspected that the problem also existed at the top. Since 2008, the United States has spent $ 1.6 billion in equipment and training for Mexican security personnel.
“You never knew who you could trust there,” said Carl Pike, a retired agent in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special operations division who spent significant time in Mexico. “We always had the idea that when we share information, we simply assume that it will be compromised.”
The local police, for example, were known to work informally with cartels operating in their country. Mexican police could be paid not to eradicate a poppy field or to allow the safe passage of drugs to the border. Mexican authorities sometimes informed the DEA about these low-level corruption cases – “as a kind of courtesy,” said Pike.
But at the highest echelons of the Mexican government, men like Garcia Luna and Cienfuegos were considered by many to be above the fray – part of an orbit of government officials and security experts who moved freely between Mexico and Washington, opining on how to stop the flow of drugs. In 2012, after leaving the government, Garcia Luna He gave a lecture at the Wilson Center based on his book, “The new public security model for Mexico. “
The book boasted the reforms made to the public security system and the Federal Police during its administration. Garcia Luna was known for promoting anti-corruption measures, such as “confidence tests” for local and state police, ostensibly to eliminate any police loyal to the cartel.
“At first glance, you would think he was one of Mexico’s saviors,” said Pike.
Cienfuegos was invited to give a speech in 2016 at the most famous military parade in Mexico, alongside then President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“Loyalty cannot be based on deception. Where honor is prioritized, there is no room for lies, ”said Cienfuegos. “When honor is lacking, loyalty becomes complicity.
The following year, he accompanied John F. Kelly, then secretary of homeland security, on a flyby over poppy fields in the state of Guerrero, along the Pacific coast south of Mexico City.
“The purpose of the visit was to discuss issues related to security and the fight against organized crime,” said the statement from Mexico about the visit.
Rise and fall
In 2018, the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies awarded its highest award to Cienfuegos for its “advancement and cooperation in the international security environment and for promoting sustainable capacity in the Americas”.
But, according to court documents released on Friday, during those years Cienfuegos “in exchange for bribe payments, helped the H-2 cartel in several ways” – referring to the once powerful cartel with a presence on Mexico’s west coast .
“Due in part to the defendant’s corrupt assistance, the H-2 cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from the Mexican military and imported thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States,” the prosecution said.
Between 2012 and 2018, when Cienfuegos was Minister of Defense, the United States was trying to improve a once-tense relationship with the Mexican military, who for decades were more reluctant to work with the United States than other parts of the Mexican government. Under Cienfuegos, this recalcitrance seemed to disappear.
In 2016, the head of the northern command of the United States, Admiral William E. Gortney, spoke enthusiastically about this progress.
“This year, the military-military relationship between the United States and Mexico has reached unprecedented levels of coordination,” said Gortney. “Today we are strategic partners.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution against Cienfuegos says he was “alerting the H-2 cartel about the ongoing US police investigation into the H-2 cartel”.
Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, described corruption as a problem in previous administrations, but not in his own government. Even so, Mexican officials say that several current security officials are likely to have links to organized crime.
Asked if he expected active members of the security establishment to be indicted, a senior Mexican official replied, “Without a doubt.”
“This only confirms that criminals can only act and flourish with the complicity of high-level officials,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his role in the current government.