Mexico’s former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos used his power in office to protect the Beltran-Leyva cartel, directing military operations against rival gangs and even finding maritime transport to ship drugs, U.S. prosecutors said.
Cienfuegos, arrested at Los Angeles airport on Thursday, took bribes in return for protection that included warning cartel members about U.S. investigations, according to prosecutors in New York who have charged him with five counts of drug trafficking and money laundering.
The detention comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, has made clamping down on drug cartels a priority, though without major progress since he took office in 2017.
The arrest of Cienfuegos – nicknamed El Padrino, or The Godfather, in an August 2019 indictment that was sealed until he was in U.S. custody – marked the first time a former Mexican defense minister has been indicted and detained.
His fall will have far reaching implications for Mexico’s drug war, which has been led by the armed forces for more than a decade.
“In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel – a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder – to operate with impunity in Mexico,” U.S. prosecutors said on Friday in a court filing.
The H-2 Cartel is a name for the Beltran-Leyva gang under the leadership of Juan Francisco Patron. One of the Beltran-Leyva brothers was killed in 2009, another arrested in 2014. By the time of Cienfuegos’ alleged crimes the gang had new leadership under Patron.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to suspend anyone inside his government implicated in the charges.
“We won’t cover up for anybody,” he said, before voicing fulsome support for Cienfuegos’ successor at the head of the army and his counterpart in the navy, noting he had personally vetted them and vouched for their honesty.
Lopez Obrador quickly incorporated the arrest into his narrative that predecessors had presided over a debilitating increase in corruption in Mexico, which for years has been convulsed by often horrific levels of drug gang violence.
“If we’re not talking about a narco state, one can certainly talk about a narco government, and without doubt, about a government of mafiosi,” Lopez Obrador said.
“We’re cleaning up, purifying public life.”
U.S. prosecutors say there appear to have been very close ties between the minister and the H-2 gang, founded by cousins of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and at the time engaged in a bloody war with his Sinaloa cartel.
His protection helped the cartel ship tonnes of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States without significant interference from the Mexican military, prosecutors said in a memo accompanying the indictment in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
According to the court documents, which cite evidence intercepted from Blackberry Messenger communications, Cienfuegos made sure military operations did not target the cartel, focusing offensives on rival groups instead.
He is also accused of introducing the gang’s senior leaders to other Mexican officials in exchange for bribes. Information he passed on about cooperating witnesses in a U.S. investigation led to the murder of a cartel member wrongly believed to be assisting U.S. law enforcement, the documents said.
Among the thousands of intercepted communications, according to U.S. prosecutors, were many direct messages between Cienfuegos and a senior leader of the H-2 Cartel, including ones in which the minister discussed his historical assistance to another drug trafficking organization.
Cienfuegos is due to appear in a Los Angeles federal court later on Friday before being transferred to New York, where prosecutors expect him to be arraigned in the coming weeks.
Reuters was not immediately able to contact a lawyer the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn said was representing the defendant.
Reporting by Drazen Jorgic, Diego Oré, Frank Jack Daniel, Lizbeth Diaz and Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Tom Brown and Daniel Wallis