He was the stern-faced chief of Mexico’s armed forces, leading the battle against the nation’s powerful drug cartels.
In 2016, he denounced the traffickers who ambushed a military convoy, killing six soldiers, as “sick, insane beasts.”
Former Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda — who served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto — was arrested late Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport after arriving on a Delta Airlines flight from Mexico City with several family members, according to a law enforcement source who was not authorized to speak publicly.
An indictment unsealed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn accused the former defense chief of four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering.
The news stunned Mexico, but at the same time was widely seen as the latest confirmation of the insidious nexus between a long-corrupt government and the criminal gangs that hold sway over much of the country.
“It is something very regrettable, that an ex-secretary of defense be arrested [and] accused of links to narco-trafficking,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was elected in a landslide vote in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform.
The president said the arrest was an example of the “decomposition” of government before he came to power and that the case did not taint the current military leaders, whom he described as honest public servants he had appointed without input from Cienfuegos.
On Friday, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn asked a a federal judge that Cienfuegos be held without bail. He is charged with taking bribes to allow a Mexican drug-trafficking organization — the H-2 Cartel, known in the Mexican media as the Beltrán Leyva Cartel —”to operate with impunity in Mexico.”
According to U.S. prosecutors, Cienfuegos used his position to ensure that military operations spared the cartel, helped find maritime transportation for drug shipments, acted to expand the gang’s territory and introduced cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials “willing to assist in exchange for bribes.”
Evidence amassed against the ex-general include “thousands of Blackberry Messenger communications” that show direct contact between Cienfuegos and and a “senior” cartel boss, prosecutors said in court documents.
If convicted, he could face at least 30 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Cienfuegos was to appear in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Friday, U.S. prosecutors said, and would be transported to New York “in the coming weeks.” There was no immediate comment from Cienfuegos or his attorney.
López Obrador told reporters Friday morning that the Mexican ambassador in Washington informed him two weeks ago that there was talk of a U.S. inquiry into the former defense chief but that he had no official knowledge of the investigation until the arrest.
There was no investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico, he said.
Cienfuegos’ arrest came as another former high-ranking Mexican official, Genaro García Luna, faces drug-trafficking charges in U.S. District Court in New York.
He served as security chief in the administration of former President Felipe Calderón and allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is now serving a life sentence in U.S. prison.
The ongoing case of García Luna — which López Obrador has cited in describing Mexico as a “narco-state” under his predecessors — became public when he was arrested in Texas in December 2019. García Luna has denied charges of drug trafficking and taking bribes.
It was not immediately clear whether the two cases were connected.
The detention of Cienfuegos immediately caused a sensation in the Mexican press and on social media.
Cienfuegos, 72, who spent more than 50 years in the Mexican military before retiring in 2018, was regarded as a firm commander who seldom spoke publicly. He did, however, express public reservations about the military’s controversial role in law enforcement, a role that has grown substantially in recent years.
Authorities here have increasingly relied on the military in the battle against drug gangs in lieu of police, who are widely viewed as corrupt — and, in many cases, on the payrolls of drug traffickers. López Obrador has broadened the military’s role in many areas, including fighting drug gangs and deterring U.S.-bound migrants from transiting through Mexican territory.
Since being dispatched to the front lines of the anti-drug battle more than a decade ago, military personnel have been implicated in cases of torture, killings, disappearances and other crimes. Yet polls show that the military remains among the country’s most trusted institutions. That is in part because of its humanitarian work: Mexican troops regularly respond to floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Homicides have risen to record levels in recent years even as the military has been deployed into cities, towns and villages. Officials say more than 200,000 people have been killed in gang-related violence in Mexico since 2006, when then President Calderón began to unleash the military in force against drug syndicates.
Critics say the so-called “kingpin strategy” — targeting mob leaders — has served to increase violence: Lower-level gang members regularly launch bloody campaigns to assume control of fragmented criminal organizations after top capos are killed or imprisoned.
Marring Cienfuegos’ tenure in office were two notorious cases: the slayings by Mexican soldiers of at least a dozen civilians in the town of Tlatlaya, outside Mexico City, in June 2014, and the abduction and murder of 43 trainee teachers seized in Guerrero state the following September. Human rights activists accused the military of misconduct in both cases.
But courts threw out charges against seven soldiers charged in the Tlatlaya case, and the military denied culpability in the disappearance of the trainee teachers.
The case of Cienfuegos recalled a scandal from more than two decades ago, when Mexico’s then-drug enforcement czar, Gen. José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested in 1997 and later convicted of working for a drug cartel that he was tasked to fight. Gutiérrez Rebollo died in 2013 while serving a 40-year prison term in Mexico.
Times special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.
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