Car­tels had al­leged reach into Mex­ico’s top ranks

U.S. in­dict­ments strike at core of part­ner­ship in drug wars

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KEVIN SIEFF kevin.sieff@wash­

MEX­ICO CITY — For years, the United States called on a cadre of se­nior Mex­i­can of­fi­cials as its part­ners in the drug war. But some of the men work­ing most closely with Wash­ing­ton al­legedly had a side hus­tle of help­ing to traf­fic drugs.

In the past 10 months, two mem­bers of Mex­ico’s elite se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment have been in­dicted on a charge of drug traf­fick­ing — rais­ing pro­found ques­tions about the reach of or­ga­nized crime in Mex­ico and the chal­lenges fac­ing one of the top U.S. for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties in Latin Amer­ica.

In De­cem­ber, Mex­ico’s for­mer chief of pub­lic se­cu­rity, Ge­naro Gar­cia Luna, was ar­rested in Texas for al­legedly ac­cept­ing bribes from the pow­er­ful Si­naloa car­tel while he was in of­fice from 2006 to 2012, in ex­change for the safe pas­sage of drugs. Then on Thurs­day, for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary Gen. 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.

Since the two men worked for dif­fer­ent Mex­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tions and are be­ing ac­cused of aid­ing dif­fer­ent drug car­tels, it’s im­pos­si­ble to dis­miss a pos­si­ble nexus between the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment and or­ga­nized crime as a short-lived prob­lem linked to a sin­gle pres­i­dent or a sin­gle drug gang.

In­stead, taken to­gether, prose­cu­tors are likely to of­fer an un­prece­dented win­dow into sus­pected in­sti­tu­tional rot at high lev­els of Mex­ico’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment.

Both tri­als will take place in U.S. fed­eral courts over the com­ing months. For now, it is un­clear how long the United States has known about the al­leged crim­i­nal ties of the two for­mer of­fi­cials, both of them once Amer­i­can in­ter­locu­tors.

Gar­cia Luna has de­nied the charges. Cien­fue­gos has not made a pub­lic com­ment since the ar­rest. Both are be­ing held with­out bail.

Com­pli­cated part­ner­ship

The United States has long re­lied on Mex­ico’s co­op­er­a­tion in stem­ming the flow of drugs to the bor­der. But, at the same time, U.S. of­fi­cials have com­plained about the sys­temic cor­rup­tion that stymied that part­ner­ship.

For decades, it was mostly lowlevel Mex­i­can of­fi­cials who were charged with hav­ing links to drug car­tels, even though U.S. of­fi­cials sus­pected the prob­lem ex­isted at the top, too. Since 2008, the United States has spent $1.6 bil­lion in equip­ment and train­ing for Mex­i­can se­cu­rity per­son­nel.

“You never knew who you can trust there,” said Carl Pike, a re­tired agent with the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spe­cial op­er­a­tions di­vi­sion who spent sig­nif­i­cant time in Mex­ico. “We al­ways had the mind-set that when we shared in­for­ma­tion, we just as­sumed it was go­ing to be com­pro­mised.”

Lo­cal po­lice, for ex­am­ple, were known to work in­for­mally with the car­tels op­er­at­ing in their swath of the coun­try.

But at the high­est lev­els of 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 gov­ern­ment, Gar­cia Luna gave a lec­ture at the Wil­son Cen­ter based on his book, “The New Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Model for Mex­ico.”

The book boasted about the re­forms made within the pub­lic se­cu­rity sys­tem and fed­eral po­lice dur­ing his ten­ure. Gar­cia Luna was known for pro­mot­ing an­ti­cor­rup­tion mea­sures, like “con­fi­dence tests” for lo­cal and state po­lice, os­ten­si­bly to weed out any of­fi­cers with car­tel loy­al­ties.

“At face value, you would have thought he was one of the sav­iors of Mex­ico,” Pike said.

Cien­fue­gos was in­vited to give a speech in 2016 at Mex­ico’s most cel­e­brated mil­i­tary pa­rade, stand­ing next to then-Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto.

“Loy­alty can­not be based on de­cep­tion. Where honor is pri­or­i­tized, there is no room for lies,” Cien­fue­gos said. “When there is a lack of honor, loy­alty be­comes com­plic­ity.”

The next year, he ac­com­pa­nied John F. Kelly, then the sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity, on an over­flight above poppy fields in the state of Guer­rero, along the Pa­cific coast south of Mex­ico City.

“The pur­pose of the visit was to dis­cuss mat­ters re­lated to se­cu­rity and the fight against or­ga­nized crime,” said Mex­ico’s news re­lease on the visit.

Rise and fall

In 2018, the Wil­liam J. Perry Cen­ter for Hemi­spheric De­fense Stud­ies be­stowed its high­est award on Cien­fue­gos for his “ad­vance­ment and co­op­er­a­tion of the in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment, and for pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able ca­pac­ity in the Amer­i­cas.”

But, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings re­leased Fri­day, dur­ing those years Cien­fue­gos “in ex­change for bribe pay­ments, as­sisted the H-2 car­tel in nu­mer­ous ways” — re­fer­ring to the once pow­er­ful car­tel with a pres­ence along Mex­ico’s west coast.

Between 2012 to 2018, when Cien­fue­gos was de­fense min­is­ter, the United States was at­tempt­ing to im­prove a once-tense re­la­tion­ship with Mex­ico’s mil­i­tary, which for decades had been more re­luc­tant to work with the United States than other parts of Mex­ico’s gov­ern­ment. Un­der Cien­fue­gos, that re­cal­ci­trance ap­peared to fade.

In 2016, the head of the United States north­ern com­mand, Adm. Wil­liam E. Gort­ney, spoke glow­ingly about that progress.

“This year, the mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship between the United States and Mex­ico reached un­prece­dented lev­els of co­or­di­na­tion,” Gort­ney said. “To­day we are strate­gic part­ners.”

Mean­while, the in­dict­ment against Cien­fue­gos says, he had been “warn­ing the H-2 car­tel about the on­go­ing U.S. law en­force­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the H-2 car­tel.”

Mex­ico’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, An­drés Manuel López Obrador, has de­scribed cor­rup­tion as a prob­lem in pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions but not in his own gov­ern­ment. Yet Mex­i­can of­fi­cials say a num­ber of cur­rent se­cu­rity of­fi­cials most likely main­tain con­nec­tions to or­ga­nized crime.

Asked if he ex­pected act­ing mem­bers of the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment to be in­dicted, one se­nior Mex­i­can of­fi­cial re­sponded: “With­out a doubt.”

“This just con­firms that the crim­i­nals can only act and flour­ish with the com­plic­ity of high­level au­thor­i­ties,” said the se­nior of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of his role in the cur­rent gov­ern­ment.


Ge­naro Gar­cia Luna, Mex­ico’s Fed­eral Sec­re­tary of Pub­lic Safety, speaks to the Associated Press in Mex­ico City in 2009.

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