Mex­i­can was car­tel as­set as de­fense chief, U.S. al­leges

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARY BETH SHERI­DAN, MARISSA J. LANG AND SHAYNA JACOBS

mex­ico city — Mex­ico’s for­mer de­fense min­is­ter had a se­cret life in which he used the army to help a car­tel send heroin, co­caine and other drugs to the United States, ac­cord­ing to U.S. court doc­u­ments re­leased Fri­day.

Some called him the God­fa­ther. Re­tired Gen. Sal­vador Cien­fue­gos, 72, was de­tained Thurs­day at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Pros­e­cu­tors in New York un­sealed a four-count in­dict­ment Fri­day charg­ing him with drug and money-laun­der­ing crimes. He ap­peared in a fed­eral court in Los An­ge­les via video later Fri­day, but a hear­ing on his de­ten­tion was de­layed un­til Tues­day. His at­tor

ney, Duane Lyons, did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Cien­fue­gos’s ar­rest has raised the star­tling pos­si­bil­ity that top Mex­i­can se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have qui­etly been work­ing with traf­fick­ers dur­ing most of the U.s.-backed of­fen­sive against the car­tels that be­gan in 2006.

The pub­lic se­cu­rity min­is­ter in the first six years of that ef­fort, Ge­naro Gar­cía Luna, is await­ing trial in New York. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of ac­cept­ing bribes to help the Sinaloa car­tel.

Cien­fue­gos served as de­fense min­is­ter in the next ad­min­is­tra­tion, that of Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Nieto, from 2012 to 2018. He is ac­cused of work­ing with a group known as H-2, an off­shoot of the Bel­trán Leyva Car­tel. It op­er­ated mainly in the western states of Sinaloa and Na­yarit.

The court doc­u­ments lay out a dev­as­tat­ing pic­ture of a se­nior of­fi­cial who, pros­e­cu­tors say, used his power to help a drug car­tel at ev­ery turn. Cien­fue­gos en­sured that the Mex­i­can mil­i­tary did not carry out op­er­a­tions against H-2 but in­stead fo­cused on its ri­vals, the doc­u­ments say. He is ac­cused of find­ing ships for the car­tel’s drugs. Cien­fue­gos even tipped off H-2 about the fact that it was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by U.S. law en­force­ment, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments.

Us­ing that knowl­edge, H-2 killed one of its own mem­bers, a per­son who se­nior car­tel lead­er­ship “in­cor­rectly be­lieved” was as­sist­ing U.S. of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to the al­le­ga­tions.

The for­mer min­is­ter’s ac­tions were de­tailed in thou­sands of Black­berry mes­sages he sent and were cor­rob­o­rated by wit­ness ac­counts, the doc­u­ments say. He did not im­me­di­ately en­ter a plea. He faces a manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tence of 10 years on drug con­spir­acy charges if found guilty.

Mex­ico’s gov­ern­ments have in­creas­ingly turned to the armed forces to take on crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions be­cause of per­sis­tent cor­rup­tion in the po­lice. Cien­fue­gos’s de­ten­tion was a bomb­shell in Mex­ico, where the mil­i­tary is one of the most trusted in­sti­tu­tions.

“We are fac­ing an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion,” Pres­i­dent An­drés Manuel López Obrador said at his daily news con­fer­ence Fri­day, re­fer­ring to the de­ten­tions of the two for­mer min­is­ters. “This is an un­de­ni­able sign of the de­com­po­si­tion of the regime.”

Since 2007, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has pro­vided Mex­ico with about $3 bil­lion in se­cu­rity and justice aid through the Merida Initiative. Yet the coun­try re­mains the No. 1 source of heroin and metham­phetamines reach­ing the United States and a ma­jor cor­ri­dor for co­caine and fen­tanyl.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­cently warned that un­less it shows progress, “Mex­ico will be at se­ri­ous risk of be­ing found to have failed” to meet its in­ter­na­tional drug-con­trol com­mit­ments. It called for more ef­forts to dis­man­tle drug or­ga­ni­za­tions and crack down on fen­tanyl pro­duc­tion.

Cor­rup­tion in Mex­ico’s armed forces has typ­i­cally been con­strued as an is­sue of in­di­vid­u­als, rather than the in­sti­tu­tions, said Adam Isac­son, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton Of­fice on Latin Amer­ica. But the ar­rest of Cien­fue­gos seems to point to a web of cor­rup­tion that “goes all the way up” to the top of the mil­i­tary, he said.

U.S. and Mex­i­can se­cu­rity ex­perts said Cien­fue­gos was gen­er­ally re­garded as an hon­est pro­fes­sional. The ar­rest “re­ally does come as a shock for those who knew and worked with him,” said Roderic Camp, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Clare­mont Mckenna Col­lege who has writ­ten two books on Mex­ico’s mil­i­tary.

The de­fense chief even re­ceived an award from the Pen­tagon’s Cen­ter for Hemi­spheric De­fense Stud­ies in 2018, the year he re­tired.

Cien­fue­gos was a dif­fer­ent per­son in pri­vate, ac­cord­ing to the de­pic­tion of him by pros­e­cu­tors.

He was known as “El Padrino” — the God­fa­ther — the doc­u­ments say. He re­ceived bribes and helped re­cruit other Mex­i­can of­fi­cials for H-2, the records say. He talked about hav­ing pre­vi­ously worked for a dif­fer­ent drug-traf­fick­ing group, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments, which did not elab­o­rate.

The min­is­ter over­saw the army and air force. U.S. anti-drug agen­cies have worked reg­u­larly with those forces but car­ried out many of their most sen­si­tive op­er­a­tions with the navy, part of a sep­a­rate min­istry. Mex­ico’s marines had been em­broiled in a years-long war with H-2.

The doc­u­ments say Cien­fue­gos helped the car­tel from De­cem­ber 2015 to Fe­bru­ary 2017. That month, the leader of H-2, Juan Fran­cisco Pa­trón Sánchez, was gunned down by Mex­i­can marines.

López Obrador has crit­i­cized the mil­i­tary-led “war on drugs,” which is widely as­so­ci­ated with a soar­ing num­ber of homi­cides in re­cent years. None­the­less, he has called on the armed forces for an in­creas­ing num­ber of tasks, in­clud­ing build­ing an air­port and dis­tribut­ing med­i­cal sup­plies.

The pres­i­dent said that any­one im­pli­cated in Cien­fue­gos’s case who is serv­ing in the gov­ern­ment would be sus­pended, re­tired or in­ves­ti­gated. “We are not go­ing to cover up for any­one,” he said.

López Obrador de­clined to spec­u­late on the guilt of Cien­fue­gos, not­ing that he had not seen the ev­i­dence. He in­stead lauded his hand­picked mil­i­tary lead­ers for their in­tegrity.

“Most of those who are part of th­ese in­sti­tu­tions are hon­est Mex­i­cans,” he said.

López Obrador said his gov­ern­ment heard of the U.S. probe only two weeks ago, from his am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton, Martha Bárcena.

An­a­lysts said the ar­rest had un­doubt­edly cre­ated un­ease in the mil­i­tary. Nu­mer­ous se­nior of­fi­cials were pro­moted by Cien­fue­gos. And his case could lead to other de­ten­tions. “To do th­ese crimes, you need the par­tic­i­pa­tion of other peo­ple,” said Ri­cardo Márquez Blas, a for­mer Mex­i­can se­cu­rity of­fi­cial.

Still, many peo­ple in Mex­ico’s mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment cir­cles re­mained skep­ti­cal of the ac­cu­sa­tions against Cien­fue­gos, and some said his ar­rest could threaten to erode co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries.

Raúl Benítez-ma­n­aut, a pro­fes­sor at the Na­tional Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity of Mex­ico who spe­cial­izes in na­tional se­cu­rity, said the first in­stinct of mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and their al­lies will be to blame the U.S. gov­ern­ment and cast doubt on the al­le­ga­tions.

“In­side the mil­i­tary, you have some talk­ing about how we can­not trust the U.S. be­cause we co­op­er­ated with them in this fight against drugs and crime and now they are ac­cus­ing our lead­ers,” Benítez-ma­n­aut said.

There was no im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion to Cien­fue­gos’s ar­rest by for­mer pres­i­dent Peña Nieto. Felipe Calderón, who was pres­i­dent from 2006 to 2012, said he had no idea Gar­cía Luna might have been in­volved in or­ga­nized crime.

RE­BECCA BLACK­WELL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gen. Sal­vador Cien­fue­gos ges­tures as then-u.s. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis lis­tens dur­ing a re­cep­tion in Mex­ico City in 2017.

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