Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s Ex-Protection Minister, Is Arrested in L.A.

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MEXICO CITY – A former Mexican Defense Secretary was arrested Thursday evening after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport with his family. This was the first high-ranking military official to be taken into custody in the US, according to the Mexican government for drug-related corruption in his country.

Former official, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was Mexico’s Secretary of Defense from 2012 to 2018, was arrested by American officials at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration and is becoming a federal law enforcement officer in New York, according to a.

The news not only takes a look at Mexico’s fight against organized crime, it also highlights the forces of corruption that affect the highest levels of government. General Cienfuegos was Minister of Defense for the entire administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, who resigned two years ago.

General Cienfuegos’ arrest comes 10 months after the retired police officer who once headed the FBI’s Mexican equivalent was charged with bribery in New York to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal mafias.

The official, Genaro García Luna, was the head of Mexico’s federal investigative agency from 2001 to 2005 and served as Mexico’s secretary for public security, a cabinet-level position, for the next six years. In this role he has the task of helping the then President Felipe Calderón to develop his strategy to fight the drug cartels in her country.

Both Mr. García Luna and General Cienfuegos served in high positions in the Mexican government at a time when killings were rising to historic levels, drug cartels were at war and military operations were expanding under Mr. Peña Nieto.

“A defense minister has never been arrested in Mexico,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “The defense minister in Mexico is a man who not only heads the army and is a soldier, but reports directly to the president. There is no one above him but the president. “

The Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed the arrest in a Twitter post. He said the US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, only told him Thursday evening that General Cienfuegos had been taken into custody.

The exact charges General Cienfuegos will face were not immediately clear, and Drug Enforcement Administration officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“This is a big deal,” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “The military has become much more corrupt and abusive since the declaration of the war on drugs, and for the first time they may not be sacrosanct – but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”

The Mexican military has played a central role in public safety since crackdown on drug cartels began in 2006, sending soldiers to regions overrun by organized crime. The Defense Minister oversees these efforts.

Suspicions of corruption in the Mexican military have long surfaced in private conversations, but the military has an extraordinary degree of autonomy, rarely bowing to political pressure, and usually enjoys the protection of the president, who relies on them to defend the nation.

With the military front and the Drug Trafficking Center, the Mexican government has never built an effective police force. The use of soldiers trained in combat but not involved in policing has posed problems of its own.

In December 2017, Mexico passed a security law that cemented the military’s role in fighting the drug war and outraged the United Nations and local and international human rights groups. They warned the measure would lead to abuse, leave troops on the streets indefinitely, and militarize police activities for the foreseeable future.

General Cienfuegos has repeatedly defended the military, saying it is the only institution effectively fighting organized crime. As drug violence skyrocketed in recent years, he kept calling on the federal government to create a legal framework to protect the armed forces, saying the need to do so was greater than ever.

“Today the crimes we are dealing with are of another level and significance. They affect many people, sometimes entire families, and we act without a legal framework, “said General Cienfuegos in March 2018.” Without them, our help is disabled. “

Nonetheless, the military has been repeatedly selected for human rights abuses and the use of excessive force, including extrajudicial killings that persecuted the armed forces throughout General Cienfuegos’ tenure as Defense Minister.

But no senior Mexican military official has been charged with money laundering and drug trafficking. Such charges would represent a new front in efforts to fight corruption and the extraordinary power that organized crime wields in Mexico.

The arrest of General Cienfuegos does not appear to have been a joint operation with the Mexican government. The case against Mr. García Luna, the retired police officer, was the direct result of a testimony in the New York trial of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, who ran the Sinaloa cartel. On Friday morning, it was unclear whether General Cienfuegos’ arrest was also related to the case against Mr Guzmán, who was convicted in Brooklyn Federal District Court in February 2019 after a three-month trial.

The Guzmán Trial revealed the inner workings of his sprawling cartel, which for decades shipped tons of drugs to the US and plagued Mexico with relentless bloodshed and corruption.

In 2016 and 2017, when Mr Guzmán was arrested one last time and sent to New York for prosecution – at a time when General Cienfuegos was Secretary of Defense – Mexican heroin production rose 37 percent and the seizure of fentanyl in Southwest Die According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the limit has more than doubled.

The DEA found that the case against Mr. Guzmán revealed that the new generation cartels of Sinaloa and Jalisco remain “the greatest criminal drug threat” to the United States.

The Guzmán case had been prosecuted for years and its trial relied on investigations from the FBI, DEA, United States Coast Guard, homeland security investigations, and the federal prosecutor’s office in Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Washington, New York and New York El Paso, Texas. The trial team also relied on numerous local American police officers and the authorities in Ecuador, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

Witnesses testified that bribes were paid to Mr. García Luna and a host of Mexican generals and police officers, as well as almost all of Colombia’s Congress.

“One of the important things about this belief is that it sends a powerful message,” said Ángel Meléndez, special agent for homeland security investigations. “You are not out of reach, you are not untouchable and your day will come.”

The coverage was written by Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City, Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington, Alan Feuer from New York and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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