MEXICO CITY – The arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister in the United States on charges that he protected a drug cartel in exchange for bribes is a blow to Mexico’s military, one of the few institutions that had maintained the confidence of the people.
Until Thursday’s arrest of retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos at Los Angeles International Airport, the military was still respected by virtue of appearing to be largely above the corruption commonly seen in other pieces of Mexico’s security apparatus, despite documented human rights abuses.
For Mexico’s last three presidents at least, the military was the security force that could be deployed against the country’s powerful drug cartels. U.S. prosecutors’ allegations that Cienfuegos was nicknamed “the Godfather” and carried on direct conversations with the leader of a violent cartel moving cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin into the United States led many Mexicans to wonder: what now?
“Now we’re in a really complicated situation because now nobody can help us,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor with George Mason University. “You can’t argue anymore that you’re going to send in the army because it’s the least corrupted institution. It’s the same or more corrupt than the others.”
Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Thursday at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was scheduled to make an initial appearance in court via video call Friday afternoon and to eventually be transferred to New York where the case originated.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday that his ambassador to the United States Martha Bárcena told him two weeks ago that there was an investigation underway there involving Cienfuegos, who had been Mexico’s top military official during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018.
López Obrador said Cienfuegos’ arrest was “regrettable.”
“This is an unmistakable example of the decomposition of the government, of how civil service was degrading, the government service during the neoliberal period,” López Obrador said. He said there was no drug-related investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico.
He offered a vote of confidence to current military leaders asserting that the leaders of the army and navy that he selected are “incorruptible.”
But the allegations against Cienfuegos are sure to spur doubt that anyone is.
According to documents filed by U.S. prosecutors, Cienfuegos helped a drug trafficking organization dubbed the “H-2 cartel,” by ensuring military operations weren’t conducted against them, acting against their rivals, introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt officials and warning the cartel about U.S. investigations. In one case, his warning about U.S. use of confidential informants led to the murder of a cartel member leaders believed “incorrectly” was helping U.S. authorities.
Mexico's defense secretary is not just another Cabinet post. It’s equivalent to being king of an independent fiefdom. In Mexico there is an iron-clad agreement that the army doesn’t interfere in politics, and politicians — the president included — don’t interfere with the army’s internal affairs. The president doesn’t just choose a defense secretary — he chooses from a list of acceptable candidates that the generals submit.
López Obrador said Friday that the current leaders of the army and navy were not names Cienfuegos had recommended.
The power that Cienfuegos wielded led military analyst Juan Ibarrola, who often expresses the army point of view, to express disbelief in an interview with W Radio Friday.
“A secretary general can't be a criminal, can't participate in the sale or distribution of drugs, or anything like that, it isn't necessary, they don't need it,” Ibarrola said. Until proven otherwise, he said Cienfuegos had an impeccable military career.
Mexico’s reliance on its military has only grown under López Obrador. He has entrusted it with not only leading the government’s ongoing fight with drug cartels, but also with stopping rampant fuel pipeline theft, building major infrastructure projects and being the backbone of the new, ostensibly civilian, National Guard.
“It’s a time when the president has put an enormous amount of trust and responsibility in the hands of the armed forces under the argument that they are more trustworthy and that it is the cleaner institution and yet what this case shows is corruption can go to any level,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs and director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
While López Obrador talks daily, including Friday, 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, 72, is the second former Mexican cabinet official arrested in the U.S. on drug charges in the past year.
Genaro García Luna was arrested last year in Texas on drug trafficking charges. U.S. prosecutors allege he 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 Calderon. He pleaded not guilty earlier this month to drug trafficking charges in a federal court in New York.
The García Luna case and now Cienfuegos would represent 12 straight years of corruption at the highest levels of Mexico's security efforts, Meyer said.
Cienfuegos is not the first general arrested for involvement with drug traffickers. Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was made Mexico’s drug czar by President Ernesto Zedillo in 1996. He was arrested the following year after it was discovered he was living in a luxury apartment owned by the leader of the Juarez cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Under Cienfuegos, Mexico continued its pursuit of the war on the drug cartels launched under Calderon. Guzman was captured twice while Cienfuegos was in command — in 2014 and 2016 — but the army was not directly involved in either. There was talk at the time that the DEA had more confidence in Mexico’s marines for acting on the most sensitive intelligence.
A Colombian drug trafficker testified early last year at Guzman’s U.S. trial that the kingpin had boasted about paying a $100 million bribe to Peña Nieto to call off the hunt for him. Peña Nieto’s spokesman denied the accusation.
Mexico’s Defense Department had no immediate reaction to Cienfuegos’ arrest.
Samuel González, who founded Mexico’s special prosecutor’s office for organized crime in the 1990s, said that the prosecutions of Guzman, García Luna and now Cienfuegos illustrate that “it’s really a trial against all the cartels and the ties between public servants and the cartels.”
“It is a very powerful paradigm change,” he said. “In the United States they are getting into the entire security area and it’s the first time they’re doing it. Are they going to get into the political protection and arrive at an ex-president? It looks like the prosecutors in New York want to get into the political arena.”
AP writers Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.