Former Mexican defence secretary accused in U.S. of trafficking massive amounts of drugs

Mexico’s former defence secretary helped smuggle thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States in exchange for bribes, according to court documents unsealed Friday.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, 72, acted on behalf of the H-2 cartel while defence secretary from 2012 to 2018 under then-president Enrique Peña Nieto, authorities said.

Thousands of intercepted Blackberry messages show the general ensured military operations were not conducted against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals, according to prosecutors. Cienfuegos allegedly introduced cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.

Cienfuegos is accused of alerting cartel leaders to a U.S. law enforcement investigation into its operations and the use of co-operating witnesses and informants, which resulted in the murder of a member of the cartel who leaders incorrectly believed was assisting U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Intercepted communications between Cienfuegos and a senior cartel leader discussed the general’s historical assistance to another drug-trafficking organization, as well as communications in which the defendant is identified by name, title and photograph as the Mexican government official assisting the H-2 cartel.

Cienfuegos was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York on Aug. 14, 2019.

He was arrested Thursday upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. A senior Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to give details of the case, said Cienfuegos was arrested with family members who were released, and he was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Cienfuegos was scheduled to make an initial appearance later Friday in federal court in Los Angeles, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

He was expected to be eventually transferred to New York, where his case is being handled.

2nd major arrest of a Mexican official

While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador talks daily about corruption being at the root of all of Mexico’s problems, the biggest catches of his term have so far come across the border in the United States.

Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking former cabinet official arrested since top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was taken in to custody in Texas in 2019.

Former top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna, shown in 2012 in Mexico City, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to drug-trafficking charges in a federal court in New York. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

The defence secretary post positioned Cienfuegos as a critical figure in efforts by Mexico and its allies to combat drug trafficking.

U.S. prosecutors allege Garcia Luna took tens of millions of dollars in bribes to protect Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel. He had served as Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security from 2006 to 2012 under then-president Felipe Calderón. He pleaded not guilty earlier this month to drug-trafficking charges in a federal court in New York.

Mexican president tees off on previous administration

The arrest of Cienfuegos is a tough blow for Mexico, where the army and navy are some of the few remaining respected public institutions.

López Obrador has vowed to go after corruption and lawbreaking under past administrations, but he has relied more heavily on the army — and given it more tasks, ranging from building infrastructure projects to distributing medical supplies — than any other president in recent history.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addresses the arrest of Cienfuegos on Friday during his morning news conference at Palacio Nacional, in Mexico City. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

On Friday, López Obrador said Cienfuegos’s arrest was “regrettable.”

He said there was no drug-related investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico and that Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena, told him two weeks ago that there was talk of an investigation involving Cienfuegos, but there was nothing specific.

“This is an unmistakable example of the decomposition of the government, of how civil service was degrading the government service during the neo-liberal period,” López Obrador said.

A Colombian drug trafficker testified early last year at Guzman’s U.S. trial that the kingpin had boasted about paying a $100 million US bribe to Peña Nieto to call off the hunt for him. Peña Nieto’s spokesperson denied the accusation.