The US arrest of Mexico's former defense minister on drug charges may soon confirm what has been alleged by traffickers themselves: that the country's military, which plays an outsized role in the fight against organized crime, has been thoroughly corrupted.
On October 15, the US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, informed Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard that former general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s defense secretary under former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), had been arrested at Los Angeles' international airport.
The arrest order from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came after Cienfuegos -- dubbed "El Padrino," or the "Godfather" -- was charged with three counts of drug conspiracy and one count of money laundering, according to an indictment filed in August 2019 in the Eastern District of New York.
The charges stem from allegations that he colluded with the H-2 Cartel between 2015 and 2017, according to court documents. The H-2 Cartel -- which has its roots in the Beltrán Leyva Organization -- was formerly led by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “H2," who was shot and killed by Mexican Marines in early 2017.
US federal prosecutors accuse the former general of using his "public position to help the H-2 Cartel ... operate with impunity" in exchange for bribes, according to an October 16 letter from prosecutors to Eastern District judge Carol B. Amon.
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Evidence cited includes "thousands of [intercepted] Blackberry Messenger communications" that allegedly show Cienfuegos shielded the group from military operations, secured maritime transport of drug shipments, warned the group about US law enforcement investigations and introduced its members to other corrupt Mexican officials, prosecutors said.
Cienfuegos' assistance ensured the H-2 Cartel operated without "significant interference from the Mexican military," allowing the crime group to import "thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States," prosecutors alleged in the letter.
Cienfuegos is not the first Mexican official accused of conspiring with the H-2 Cartel. Former Nayarit state attorney general Edgar Veytia was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in an international drug trafficking conspiracy with the group.
While Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking member of Mexico's military to face drug charges, he is just the latest top-level security official to be arrested.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, was indicted in 2019 on a number of cocaine trafficking charges. He and two high-ranking police officers that worked under him, Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García, were also accused of accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cienfuegos’ arrest is unprecedented. That it even happened at all is remarkable.
Military officials have long been accused of corruption but are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. It has been more than two decades since former general and anti-drug czar Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested and later convicted for colluding with high-profile cocaine traffickers like Amado Carrillo Fuentes, better known as the “Lord of the Skies.”
Cienfuegos' arrest also hits hard Mexico’s armed forces, which became even more central to attacking organized crime groups when in 2006 then-President Felipe Calderón launched an official crackdown. The militarized approach has only ballooned in the ensuing so-called drug war.
Since then, more than 200,000 people have been killed in Mexico, and tens of thousands more have disappeared. The indictment suggests that while Cienfuegos was leading the institution at the heart of the fight against organized crime under the Peña Nieto administration, he was also allegedly colluding with the very criminals he pledged to root out.
Indeed, Cienfuegos’ arrest further upends any notion of a “war,” in which the state is on one side and criminal groups on the other. In reality, these actors are much more intertwined, maintaining order and driving violence as a means to regulate conditions that are mutually beneficial.
The United States has much to answer for as well. With the arrest of García Luna and now Cienfuegos, it has become increasingly clear that US security and government officials frequently work with counterparts deeply involved in the drug trade. The question now is what was known and when. Speculation about high-level corruption has swirled for decades, especially during the Calderón administration's tenure from 2006 to 2012.
"There were a number of red flags when Cienfuegos was a general, and when he was named defense minister in 2012, I had heard rumors about his corruption," Mike Vigil, the DEA's former Chief of International Operations, told InSight Crime.
This is far from the first time Cienfuegos has been at the center of controversy. In 2015, the former army chief infamously said that his soldiers “won’t be treated like criminals” in relation to the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Last month, authorities issued arrest warrants for the alleged material and intellectual authors of the crime, including members of the military.
In 2014, Cienfuegos also rejected accusations that his troops were culpable in the so-called Tlatlaya massacre, when soldiers killed 22 people in what was described as a “shootout." In reality, the soldiers received a direct order to kill, according to human rights activists.
Cienfuegos’ arrest also adds to the list of Mexican officials to be charged in the United States and not at home. As a result, he won't be held to account for some of the grave human rights abuses he is accused of overseeing as a general in Mexico.
What's more, the military continues to be one of Mexico’s most trusted institutions and a mainstay of domestic security. A May decree signed earlier this year solidified its place in combatting crime groups for the foreseeable future. The United States also recently urged Mexico to crack down harder, demanding the Mexican government demonstrate its “commitment to dismantling the cartels and their criminal enterprises.”
This all but guarantees that the armed forces will remain on the frontlines, despite the latest headlines.