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Analysis

Spanning years during drug wars, US indictments claim cartels reached into Mexico's top security ranks

Mexico's then-Secretary of National Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda greets then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 2017.

AMBER I. SMITH/U.S. ARMY

By KEVIN SIEFF | The Washington Post | Published: October 17, 2020

MEXICO CITY — For years, the United States called on a cadre of senior Mexican officials as its partners in the drug war. But some of the men working most closely with Washington allegedly had a side hustle of helping to traffic drugs.

In the past 10 months, two members of Mexico's elite security establishment have been indicted on a charge of drug trafficking - raising profound questions about the reach of organized crime in Mexico and the challenges facing one of the top U.S. foreign policy priorities in Latin America.

In December, Mexico's former chief of public security, Genaro Garcia Luna, was arrested in Texas for allegedly accepting bribes from the powerful Sinaloa cartel while he was in office from 2006 to 2012, in exchange for the safe passage of drugs. Then on Thursday, former defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested in Los Angeles. Prosecutors accuse Cienfuegos, who was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018, of using his position to assist the H-2 cartel to expand its territorial control, according to thousands of intercepted messages.

Since the two men worked for different Mexican administrations and are being accused of aiding different drug cartels, it's impossible to dismiss a possible nexus between the Mexican government and organized crime as a short-lived problem linked to a single president or a single drug gang.

Instead, taken together, prosecutors are likely to offer an unprecedented window into suspected institutional rot at high levels of Mexico's security establishment.

Both trials will take place in U.S. federal courts over the coming months. For now, it is unclear how long the United States has known about the alleged criminal ties of the two former officials, both of them once American interlocutors.

Garcia Luna has denied the charges. Cienfuegos has not made a public comment since the arrest. Both are being held without bail.

The United States has long relied on Mexico's cooperation in stemming the flow of drugs to the border. But, at the same time, U.S. officials have complained about the systemic corruption that stymied that partnership.

For decades, it was mostly low-level Mexican officials who were charged with having links to drug cartels, even though U.S. officials suspected the problem existed at the top, too. Since 2008, the United States has spent $1.6 billion in equipment and training for Mexican security personnel.

"You never knew who you can trust there," said Carl Pike, a retired agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration's special operations division who spent significant time in Mexico. "We always had the mind-set that when we shared information, we just assumed it was going to be compromised."

Local police, for example, were known to work informally with the cartels operating in their swath of the country. Mexican law enforcement agents could be paid off not to eradicate a poppy field, or to allow the safe passage of drugs to the border. Mexican officials would sometimes tip off the DEA to such low-level corruption cases - "as a kind of courtesy," Pike said.

But at the highest levels of Mexican government, men like Garcia Luna and Cienfuegos were considered by many to be above the fray - part of an orbit of government officials and security experts who moved freely between Mexico and Washington, opining on how to stop the flow of drugs. In 2012, after leaving government, Garcia Luna gave a lecture at the Wilson Center based on his book, "The New Public Security Model for Mexico."

The book boasted about the reforms made within the public security system and federal police during his tenure. Garcia Luna was known for promoting anti-corruption measures, like "confidence tests" for local and state police, ostensibly to weed out any officers with cartel loyalties.

"At face value, you would have thought he was one of the saviors of Mexico," Pike said.

Cienfuegos was invited to give a speech in 2016 at Mexico's most celebrated military parade, standing next to then-President Enrique Peña Nieto.

"Loyalty cannot be based on deception. Where honor is prioritized, there is no room for lies," Cienfuegos said. "When there is a lack of honor, loyalty becomes complicity.

The next year, he accompanied John F. Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, on an overflight above poppy fields in the state of Guerrero, along the Pacific coast south of Mexico City.

"The purpose of the visit was to discuss matters related to security and the fight against organized crime," said Mexico's news release on the visit.

In 2018, the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies bestowed its highest award on Cienfuegos for his "advancement and cooperation of the international security environment, and for promoting sustainable capacity in the Americas."

But, according to court filings released Friday, during those years Cienfuegos "in exchange for bribe payments, assisted the H-2 cartel in numerous ways" - referring to the once powerful cartel with a presence along Mexico's west coast.

"Due in part to the defendant's corrupt assistance, the H-2 cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from the Mexican military and imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States," the indictment said.

Between 2012 to 2018, when Cienfuegos was defense minister, the United States was attempting to improve a once tense relationship with Mexico's military, which for decades had been more reluctant to work with the United States than other parts of Mexico's government. Under Cienfuegos, that recalcitrance appeared to fade.

In 2016, the head of the United States northern command, Adm. William E. Gortney, spoke glowingly about that progress.

"This year, the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Mexico reached unprecedented levels of coordination," Gortney said. "Today we are strategic partners."

Meanwhile, the indictment against Cienfuegos says, he had been "warning the H-2 cartel about the ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigation into the H-2 cartel."

Mexico's current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has described corruption as a problem in previous administrations but not in his own government. Yet Mexican officials say a number of current security officials most likely maintain connections to organized crime.

Asked if he expected acting members of the security establishment to be indicted, one senior Mexican official responded: "Without a doubt."

"This just confirms that the criminals can only act and flourish with the complicity of high-level authorities," said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his role in the current government.