Ex-Mexico security chief’s trial poised to lift lid on US and Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ | Mexico

One of Mexico’s most powerful former officials will stand trial in the US this week, charged with accepting million-dollar bribes from a violent cartel in a case with profound political implications that could expose the inner workings of the “war on drugs” on both sides of the border.

Genaro García Luna, a former head of Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI who went on to lead the country’s security ministry, was arrested in Texas in 2019, charged with conspiring to traffic cocaine and lying to the US government.

He was subsequently charged with taking multimillion-dollar bribes from the powerful Sinaloa cartel, once run by the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in exchange for allowing it to operate with impunity, all while he was supposedly spearheading Mexico’s anti-drug efforts.

The accusations against García Luna surfaced during El Chapo’s trial, when one of the Sinaloa cartel’s members testified that he had given the former security minister briefcases filled with cash. If convicted, the former official faces up to life in prison.

“For nearly two decades, García Luna betrayed those he was sworn to protect”, said Seth DuCharme, acting US attorney for the eastern district of New York, announcing the second set of charges in 2020, “by accepting bribes from members of the Sinaloa cartel to facilitate their crimes and empower their criminal enterprise.”

The trial, which is set to begin in a Brooklyn court on Tuesday, has the potential to expose the insidious corruption that has plagued Mexican security agencies, while also underscoring the failures of the US-supported fight against drug trafficking groups, and provide Mexico’s current president with still more ammunition for his constant attacks against previous administrations.

Quick Guide

Mexico’s evolving war on drugs


Calderón sends in the army

Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.

Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

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“During Felipe Calderón’s presidency, [García Luna] was one of the two or three most important actors in the fight against drug trafficking, probably the most important,” said Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a former foreign policy adviser to Calderón. “So yes, it is very significant.”

Once the head of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency, García Luna was selected by Calderón in 2006 to serve as secretary of public security, which also put him in charge of Mexico’s now defunct federal police.

Throughout Calderón’s presidency, García Luna was tasked with developing and implementing the president’s militarized assault on the nation’s powerful drug cartels. In doing so, he worked closely with American security officials and traveled regularly to the US.

“He was one of Washington’s favorites,” said Fernández de Castro.

But according to the current US attorney for the eastern district of New York, Breon Peace, García Luna was secretly receiving millions of dollars from the Sinaloa cartel. In a letter last week to Judge Brian M Cogan, Peace said that, in exchange for the bribes, the cartel was granted “safe passage for its drug shipments, sensitive law enforcement information about investigations into the cartel, and information about rival drug cartels”.

The cartel was also at times tipped off about potential arrests, and even if they were arrested, cartel members were allowed to walk free. While being protected by García Luna, the Sinaloa cartel was able to import “multi-ton drug loads” to New York, according to Peace.

After leaving office in 2012, García Luna moved to Miami, where his lavish lifestyle, including a multimillion-dollar home and yacht, was supported by businessmen with whom he had worked while in office, helping them extend government surveillance and technology contracts.

Using what the US attorney called “an opaque constellation of shell companies, straw buyers, foreign bank accounts, cash businesses, and proxies”, García Luna is alleged to have “spent his time peddling the influence he had gained while participating in the conspiracy to create wealth for himself in the United States.”

García Luna has pleaded not guilty to the charges. César de Castro, a lawyer for the former security secretary, did not respond to an interview request.

People who knew and worked with García Luna, particularly in his early days as head of the Federal Investigation Agency, described him as serious and strict – a figure at odds with the mansion-dwelling Miami playboy portrayed by US prosecutors.

“He was a very disciplined guy, very institutional,” said Gustavo Mohar, who served as the general secretary of Mexico’s top intelligence agency CISEN under President Calderón. “He was the classic policeman who in front of his superiors was very ‘Yes sir, no sir.’”

The problem, said Mohar, came once García Luna was appointed to the head of the security ministry, a position with extraordinary power.

“He became the policeman, the guy in charge of taking down organized crime, and particularly drug trafficking,” Mohar said. “I think that warped his sense of reality.”

Given the close ties the former security secretary once enjoyed with Washington, the trial could also be awkward for US officials, security analysts said.

“It’s part of this complex web of cooperation but also complicity between officials in Mexico and the United States in the war against drug trafficking and organized crime,” said Fernández de Castro, the former Calderón adviser.

Peace, the US attorney, said the government “expects that numerous witnesses, including several former high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel, will testify”. As happened at the trial of El Chapo, this testimony, along with García Luna’s own, has the potential to implicate current and former officials on both sides of the border.

But one official likely looking forward to the trial is the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who built his brand campaigning on the corruption that plagued his predecessors.

“This is a marvelous gift for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, because it speaks to the corruption of the past,” said Fernández de Castro. “It’s a football the US justice system is giving him so he can score an incredible goal.”

Unlike the 2020 arrest of Gen Salvador Cienfuegos, which caused such outrage among Mexican officials that the US returned him to Mexico, López Obrador has spent months raging about García Luna – even reprimanding Mexican media for not covering the trial enough.

“It’s going to be interesting,” the president said last week. “It’s very important for me to follow it, and I hope the media are going to be reporting on it constantly.”

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