MEXICO CITY—Mexico’s former defense minister received bribes from a leading drug cartel in exchange for allowing them to ship tons of cocaine and other drugs to the U.S. and helping them expand their operations in Mexico, U.S. prosecutors alleged on Friday.
The allegations are part of an indictment unsealed Friday against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and led the army’s war on drug cartels.
U.S. agents arrested the retired general at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday as he arrived with his family.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the arrest showed that corruption is the country’s biggest problem and reinforced his longstanding claim that past administrations were hopelessly corrupt.
“I always said that it wasn’t just a crisis, but a decadence that we were suffering from,” he told a press conference. Mr. López Obrador won a landslide victory in 2018 elections promising to do away with a corrupt “mafia of power.”
Gen. Cienfuegos, 72 years old, is the highest ranking Mexican official ever charged with drug-related corruption. The arrest will damage bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs, harm the image of one of the few institutions in Mexico that the public trusts, and raise more doubts about Mexico’s strategy of relying on the army to chase powerful drug cartels.
“This is a huge scandal,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor of international relations at the University of Guadalajara. “It’s a devastating blow to the Mexican army, which is the most important pillar of López Obrador’s security strategy.”
The indictment says Gen. Cienfuegos used his position as secretary of defense to help the H-2 Cartel, a criminal gang more commonly known in Mexico as the Beltran Leyva organization, to ship drugs without interference from the military.
It said the general also used his position to initiate operations against rival drug gangs, locate maritime transport for drug shipments, help the cartel expand its territory and introduce cartel leaders to other senior officials willing to be bribed in exchange for helping the gang.
The gang used bribes of other top unnamed Mexican government officials “to ensure the arrest and torture of rival drug traffickers by Mexican law enforcement, the release of members of the H-2 Cartel from prison, and the ability to engage in wholesale drug trafficking, firearms trafficking and violence, including dozens of murders, without interference by Mexican law-enforcement officials.”
U.S. law enforcement intercepted thousands of BlackBerry Messenger messages between the general and gang leaders, according to the indictment.
Mr. López Obrador said he has confidence in the current defense and navy chiefs, whom he personally picked, and that Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval wasn’t recommended by Gen. Cienfuegos. He denied that the arrest would weaken the armed forces, which he said were key to the country’s development.
But many analysts pointed out that the top five Mexican army officers, including Gen. Sandoval, were promoted by Gen. Cienfuegos and were close aides to the former defense minister.
“Of course, we have the presumption that people are innocent until proven guilty, but you have to consider the possibility that these guys were somehow involved in what Cienfuegos was doing,” said Craig Deare, an expert on Mexico’s military at the National Defense University and former head of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration.
Gen. Cienfuegos’ arrest comes less than a year after the detention of Genaro García Luna, former head of Mexico’s federal police who led the country’s war on drug cartels during the 2006-2012 administration of President Felipe Calderón. Mr. García Luna, who has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges, is in prison awaiting trial in New York.
That stunning arrest was followed by arrest orders for two senior aides to Mr. García Luna, including the former head of antinarcotics intelligence in the federal police.
The three men were charged after information surfaced in the 2019 New York trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa Cartel, implicating Mr. García Luna. During the trial, a witness testified that he had handed Mr. García Luna $3 million in cartel money in a suitcase, something Mr. García Luna has denied.
Taken together, the string of arrests suggest that drug-related corruption has infiltrated the most senior levels of Mexican law enforcement and the military, analysts said.
The continuing corruption scandals highlight the corrosive effects on Mexico of U.S. drug demand. Over the past two decades, Mexico has become the largest supplier of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs like meth and fentanyl.
As drugs flow north, billions in cash and tens of thousands of weapons flow south, empowering cartels that have become as strong as the Mexican state. The money has been used to corrupt virtually every Mexican institution, and the weapons are largely responsible for more than 200,000 violent murders since 2006, when drug-related violence exploded here.
“It’s a tragedy that because of U.S. drug demand, there is so much violence in Mexico and it’s a tragedy that the army has to be called in, and in confronting the cartels, becomes susceptible to corruption,” said Mr. Deare.
Mexico, of course, also bears responsibility in its failure to create law enforcement institutions that are honest and capable. Mexican police are notoriously corrupt. Many of the top crime bosses in Mexico are former police officers, including the head of the most powerful cartel, the Jalisco Cartel.
In the early 2000s, successive administrations set about building a robust and honest federal police force that could tackle organized crime. Meanwhile, it relied on the army for most antidrug operations, arguing that it would return the soldiers to their barracks when federal police forces were ready.
But so far, that hasn’t happened. Mr. Peña Nieto’s administration largely ignored the federal police, freezing funding. And Mr. López Obrador has since pulled the plug, dissolving the federal police and arguing the country needed to start over with a European-style national guard.
As a candidate, Mr. López Obrador had vowed that the army would pull back on the war against drugs and the national guard would be civilian-run. But since taking power, the nationalist president was persuaded by military chiefs that the armed forces were needed to confront the country’s dire security situation.
Since taking office in December 2018, Mr. López Obrador has given the military an even bigger role, giving it control over the National Guard, and using it in a range of activities, from building a new airport for Mexico City to putting the Navy in control of the country’s seaports.
After the arrest of Mr. García Luna, who was the face of the country’s effort to build a federal police force, Mr. López Obrador said it justified his decision to abolish the federal police. But analysts say the arrest of the former defense minister shows that the army isn’t immune to corruption, either. And having a corrupt army is dangerous for any society.
The army is one of Mexico’s few admired institutions, largely due to its role in disaster relief and the fact it stayed on the political sidelines in a region where military coups often ousted civilian governments. More than 83% think the army is effective in its performance, according to government surveys. That compares with less than 40% for local police, and around half for state police. Other surveys show the military is the second most admired institution in Mexico after universities and narrowly ahead of the Catholic Church.
Yet analysts have warned for a very long time that one of the big dangers of using the military to fight drug gangs is exposing them to corruption. In the late 1990s, another senior army leader, antidrug czar Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested and sentenced to 40 years in jail for taking bribes from drug cartels. He died in 2013 in prison.
The arrest of Gen. Cienfuegos came as a surprise to people in the U.S. military who had worked closely with him to strengthen ties with the Mexican military, said Sergio de la Peña, who retired last week as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere. Mr. de la Peña said the Pentagon didn’t have any inkling Gen. Cienfuegos had been allegedly involved with drug trafficking.
“In Mexico, people are put in situations where there is enormous temptation,” said Mr. de la Peña. “And the possibility of succumbing to that temptation is always there. It’s disappointing.”
Gen. Cienfuegos worked hard to build a close relationship with the U.S. military, said Mr. de la Peña. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Matthis met with Gen. Cienfuegos at his home during a 2017 meeting of North American defense ministers, and was received at the Pentagon with full honors. Mr. Matthis came to Mexico the following year at Gen. Cienfuegos’ invitation.
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