The US arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister on drug charges confirms what has been alleged by traffickers themselves: that the country’s military, which plays an outsized role in the fight against organized crime, has been thoroughly corrupted.
On October 15, the US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, informed Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard that former general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s defense secretary under former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), had been arrested at Los Angeles’ international airport.
The arrest order from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came after Cienfuegos — dubbed “El Padrino,” or the “Godfather” — was charged with three counts of drug conspiracy and one count of money laundering, according to an indictment filed in August 2019 in the Eastern District of New York.
The charges stem from allegations that he colluded with the H-2 Cartel between 2015 and 2017, according to court documents. The H-2 Cartel — which has its roots in the Beltrán Leyva Organization — was formerly led by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “H2,” who was shot and killed by Mexican Marines in early 2017.
US federal prosecutors accuse the former general of using his “public position to help the H-2 Cartel … operate with impunity” in exchange for bribes, according to an October 16 letter from prosecutors to Eastern District judge Carol B. Amon.
Evidence cited includes “thousands of [intercepted] Blackberry Messenger communications” that allegedly show Cienfuegos shielded the group from military operations, secured maritime transport of drug shipments, warned the group about US law enforcement investigations and introduced its members to other corrupt Mexican officials, prosecutors said.
Cienfuegos’ assistance ensured the H-2 Cartel operated without “significant interference from the Mexican military,” allowing the crime group to import “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States,” prosecutors alleged in the letter.
Cienfuegos is not the first Mexican official accused of conspiring with the H-2 Cartel. Former Nayarit state attorney general Edgar Veytia was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in an international drug trafficking conspiracy with the group.
While Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking member of Mexico’s military to face drug charges, he is just the latest top-level security official to be arrested.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, was indicted in 2019 on a number of cocaine trafficking charges. He and two high-ranking police officers that worked under him, Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García, were also accused of accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cienfuegos’ arrest is unprecedented. That it even happened at all is remarkable.
Military officials have long been accused of corruption but are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. It has been more than two decades since former general and anti-drug czar Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested and later convicted for colluding with high-profile cocaine traffickers like Amado Carrillo Fuentes, better known as the “Lord of the Skies.”
Cienfuegos’ arrest also hits hard Mexico’s armed forces, which became even more central to attacking organized crime groups when in 2006 then-President Felipe Calderón launched an official crackdown. The militarized approach has only ballooned in the ensuing so-called drug war.
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