The conviction of Mexico’s former public security minister, Genaro García Luna, on drug trafficking and corruption charges represents a complicated victory for US law enforcement, simultaneously underscoring an intolerance for corrupt partners while also revealing the challenges of upholding that commitment. 

The conviction of García Luna on all charges was the culmination of a lengthy investigation and prosecution by US authorities, who accused García Luna of taking multimillion-dollar bribes from leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel and its ally turned enemy, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, in exchange for protecting drug traffickers from law enforcement and providing intelligence on rival groups. 

Drug traffickers provided some of the most explosive testimony against García Luna, who had been considered a close drug-war ally of the United States during his stint from 2006 to 2012 as Mexico’s top law enforcement official. Jesús Zambada, alias “El Rey,” the brother of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” claimed he made multiple cash payments to García Luna, both in person and through García Luna’s right-hand man Luis Cárdenas Palomino. 

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Another trafficker, Óscar Nava Valencia, alias “El Lobo,” a former leader of the Milenio Cartel and a close associate of the Sinaloa Cartel, echoed Zambada’s accusations, claiming he also made direct payments to García Luna. “I delivered cash to him … It was more than $10 million,” he testified.  

The abundance of sensational testimony contrasted with the relative lack of hard evidence supporting the US prosecutors’ contentions about García Luna’s alleged criminal activities. García Luna’s lawyer Cesar de Castro emphasized this point throughout the trial, arguing that there was “no money, no photos, no video, no texts, no emails, no recordings, no documents — no credible, believable evidence,” upon which to convict García Luna. 

US prosecutor Erin Reid countered that the witness testimony was conclusive evidence of García Luna’s activities, despite that much of it came from convicted criminals.  

“We could pick a bunch of school teachers to testify, but school teachers don’t run international drug cartels,” Reid said during the trial’s closing arguments. “You don’t need a wiretap or a video or a phone call. You had the best evidence — the people who paid him.”  

InSight Crime Analysis

García Luna’s conviction sends a clear message that the United States is committed to tackling corruption among even the highest ranks of its partners in Mexico’s law enforcement and security institutions. But the prosecution also highlights some major obstacles US authorities face when attempting to tackle this issue. 

The lack of hard evidence is a feature of many corruption cases, and was especially prevalent in García Luna’s case. Wiretapping conversations, obtaining messages and videos, or uncovering a paper trail of bribes are all very difficult tasks — even more so when the target is a law enforcement official who knows the tricks of the trade.  

It can also be hard to balance rooting out corruption with the need to maintain cooperation and trust of close allies to support anti-narcotics operations.  

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David Shirk, the director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, told InSight Crime that García Luna’s good reputation and relationship with US partners during his time in office may have shielded him from scrutiny. 

“The reason we don’t have the evidence is that we weren’t even looking for it at the time,” Shirk said. “We were so enamored of García Luna a decade or so ago that nobody was seriously questioning his integrity and attempting to gather evidence or information against him.” 

Diplomatic considerations have also served as a challenge to US law enforcement in pursuing corruption cases against Mexican partners. 

Mexico’s current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, had little incentive to provide political cover for García Luna, who served under the administration of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, a political opponent of AMLO. 

On the other hand, AMLO’s administration helped scuttle a US attempt to prosecute Salvador Cienfuegos, the former Mexican defense secretary who was charged in 2020 with drug trafficking and money laundering. The AMLO government’s successful push to have Cienfuegos released from US custody and returned to Mexico stemmed in part from AMLO’s desire to preserve a politically expedient relationship with the country’s armed forces.

Similar political calculations will likely affect Mexico’s willingness to cooperate with future US attempts to target corrupt actors in its partner’s crime-fighting forces, said Dan Schneider, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and former US Justice Department prosecutor. 

“I don’t know how much this will embolden them. I think the central question for them is still, is there going to be political interference?” Schneider told InSight Crime. 

Despite the symbolic significance of García Luna’s conviction, its lasting effect on US law enforcement’s anti-corruption efforts may be less profound.

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