With the trial of Mexico's former top public security official set to begin in the United States, the judicial proceedings will also spotlight shortcomings in the binational fight against organized crime groups.
The high-profile case starts a little more than three years after federal authorities arrested Genaro García Luna, Mexico's public security minister from 2006 to 2012, in the state of Texas on drug charges and lying to authorities.
In the four-count indictment filed in December 2019, prosecutors in New York accused him of being a central component in a sprawling international cocaine trafficking conspiracy that spanned nearly half of his career as a security official.
A superseding indictment filed in July 2020 further charged García Luna with engaging in a "continuing criminal enterprise" with other top officials. This reportedly involved "accepting bribes from members of the Sinaloa Cartel to facilitate their crimes," according to US Attorney Seth DuCharme, including the trafficking of more than 50 tons of cocaine.
The former official has denied the charges levied against him and entered a not guilty plea through his lawyers.
Between 2001 and 2012, García Luna allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, previously led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo." During this time, he headed Mexico's Federal Investigation Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación - AFI) and then went on to control the country's now-defunct federal police in his role as minister of public security.
But as the architect of the so-called "war on drugs" launched in 2006 by ex-President Felipe Calderón with the full backing of the United States, García Luna won't be the only one scrutinized during the trial.
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García Luna was one of Mexico's most influential political operators when Calderón first sent 6,500 soldiers into his home state of Michoacán to confront the Familia Michoacana and organized crime as a whole just days after taking office in December 2006.
At this point, US prosecutors allege that he had already been involved in a years-long quid-pro-quo with the Sinaloa Cartel. In exchange for bribe money earned through drug trafficking, García Luna purportedly ensured safe passage for the group's cocaine shipments, passed on information about law enforcement investigations into the cartel, as well as intelligence on rival groups.
The timing of García Luna's alleged crimes raises serious questions about how the US government could have backed an anti-crime strategy orchestrated in part by an official who was allegedly deeply involved with the highest levels of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Despite rumors of his alleged criminal activity, Roberta Jacobson, a career diplomat who directed the US State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs from December 2002 to June 2007 and later became US Ambassador to Mexico in 2015, said in a May 2020 tweet that she "never saw any corroborated information of [García Luna's] involvement in drug trafficking."
"In an environment of many rumors, one is always cautious about working with officials," she added.
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Prosecutors have said they will rely on a trove of evidence, including witness testimony, financial records, intercepted communications, Mexican law enforcement files, as well as unspecified "records related to the shipment of narcotics into the United States through shell companies," among others.
However, García Luna's lawyers have asked Judge Brian Cogan to permit the defense team to submit photographic and written evidence of meetings between him and senior US officials during his 12 years as a public official.
"García Luna had countless meetings with United States lawmakers, members of the United States law enforcement community, and high-ranking United States policymakers in the executive branch, including a former President and former Attorney Generals regarding the parties' shared efforts in combating the cartels," García Luna's attorney, César de Castro, wrote in a January 10 letter.
De Castro went on to argue that the "close alliance" between García Luna and "all levels of United States law enforcement, the enemy of all drug cartels, is certainly probative as to whether the uncorroborated statements of witnesses can be believed that he was truly a member of the cartels himself and received payment to protect those cartel members from the reaches of law enforcement."
It remains to be seen which narrative will prevail. Was García Luna a close US ally at the forefront of the fight against Mexico's drug trafficking groups? Or was he a corrupt security official the US kept on working with to achieve a larger goal of weakening organized crime groups?
In either case, the drug war rages on. Mexico closed last year with more than 30,000 homicides for the fifth year in a row -- driven in large part by an organized crime landscape that has metastasized into a highly fragmented panorama with hundreds of armed groups -- as total murders are now nearly three times as high as when this counter-drug campaign began.