Explosive accusations by US prosecutors that three former top Mexican security officials accepted millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel serve as damning evidence that the US-backed drug war relies on proxies with dangerous ties.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security from 2006 to 2012, is charged with “engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise" and drug trafficking, according to a superseding indictment filed on July 30.
The former top security official “betrayed those he was sworn to protect by accepting bribes from members of the Sinaloa Cartel,” prosecutor Seth DuCharme said in a July 30 Justice Department press release. On at least two occasions, Sinaloa Cartel members “personally delivered bribe payments” to García Luna in briefcases containing millions of dollars, according to the news release.
Two high-ranking officers who served under García Luna -- Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García -- were also indicted on drug trafficking charges.
Between 2001 and 2012, the three officials served the cartel by “agreeing not to interfere” with its multi-ton drug shipments. They also gave the group access to "sensitive law enforcement information" and put "other corrupt officials in positions of power” in areas the group controlled, according to the indictment.
In addition to the criminal enterprise charge -- the same one former Sinaloa Cartel capo Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison for -- García Luna is accused of aiding the Sinaloa Cartel's trafficking of six cocaine shipments totaling about 50,000 kilograms into the United States between 2002 and 2007, according to the indictment.
García Luna was arrested in December 2019 in the state of Texas, but Cárdenas Palomino and Pequeño García have not yet been apprehended. If convicted, the former security secretary faces a sentence of between 20 years and life in prison. The other two officers face between 10 years and life in prison.
InSight Crime Analysis
The charges against three top security officials during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón put them on the payroll of the Sinaloa Cartel at the same time they were meant to lead US-backed anti-drug efforts.
Under García Luna, Cárdenas Palomino acted as the federal police’s director of regional operations between 2006 and 2012. Pequeño García headed the federal police’s anti-narcotics division that oversaw the Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU), which had been specially vetted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to a ProPublica report.
However, the vetting did not apply to the top leadership of the unit, which long had a reputation for leaking privileged information to Mexico’s criminal groups. Two groundbreaking investigations from ProPublica journalist Ginger Thompson in 2017 uncovered how the murderous Zetas had access to such information.
In April 2010, the Zetas kidnapped and later presumably killed four individuals at a Holiday Inn in the northern business hub of Monterrey. ProPublica reported that an undercover surveillance operation the DEA and SIU had been running out of the hotel to track the regional Zetas boss at that time, Héctor Raúl Luna, alias "El Tori," had been compromised.
When El Tori learned of the sting, he sent gunmen to the hotel. The agents quickly evacuated the area, and four hotel guests -- along with a receptionist -- were kidnapped. US officials did not assist in the subsequent investigation into the disappearances, according to ProPublica.
Less than a year later, in March 2011, Zetas gunmen stormed the city of Allende near the US-Mexico border. They kidnapped and massacred dozens of men, women and children as they searched for the informants cooperating with the DEA, according to ProPublica’s investigation.
It's unclear how, but information sent from the DEA to the SIU was leaked to the Zetas, sparking the violent manhunt. Cárdenas Palomino and Pequeño García have not been linked to these massacres, but the charges against them highlight a worrying lack of oversight for such officers.
One former SIU commander, Iván Reyes Arzate, turned himself in to US authorities in 2017 after he was accused of filtering information to criminal groups the DEA was investigating. He was later also charged in connection to a drug trafficking conspiracy.
“Clearly the United States had to have known that something was profoundly rotten or really suspicious when the top leadership of the SIU was not willing to be vetted,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told InSight Crime. “There must have been an awareness of the potentially huge risk for problems, but a decision was made that whatever intelligence was coming through was worth it.”