Mexico’s former defense secretary has been accused of using his position to help one of the most notorious drug cartels operate with impunity while it is using the Mexican military to injure its rivals, US prosecutors said.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, have accused Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, 72, of accepting bribes from the H-2 cartel in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, in return for his services.
Cienfuegos, who served as Secretary of Defense under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018, was detained on Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport.
The H-2 cartel is described by prosecutors as distributing thousands of pounds of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana.
“In Mexico, the H-2 cartel traded hundreds of deadly firearms and committed countless horrific acts of violence, including torture and murder, to protect itself from the challenges of rival drug trafficking organizations, to fight territory, and to silence those involved they would cooperate with law enforcement, “said the prosecutor.
If convicted of the four drug and money laundering cases, Cienfuegos could face life in prison.
Cienfuego’s sticky note states that he helped prevent military operations from being conducted against the H-2 cartel, initiated military operations against rival drug cartels, located the sea transportation for H-2’s drugs, and removed the territory of H -2 extended to Mazatlán and later to the rest of Sinaloa.
Cienfuegos also introduced the cartel leadership to other corrupt Mexican officials who allegedly took bribes and warned H-2 about US law enforcement investigations, including the use of witnesses and informants. A suspected informant was killed because H-2 believed it was working with US law enforcement, despite prosecutors saying it did not.
Prosecutors say they intercepted thousands of Blackberry messengers between Cienfuegos and the H-2 leadership detailing the relationship.
“Dissolution of Government”
The Mexican president on Friday criticized previous governments for being corrupt after the arrest.
“This is an unmistakable example of the disintegration of the government, of the deterioration of the public service.” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said according to The Associated Press.
López Obrador said he only found out later about Cienfuegos’ arrest and included the incident in his narrative that his predecessors presided over a steady rise in corruption.
“We’re not going to cover anyone up,” said López Obrador at a daily press conference before expressing his support for Cienfuegos’ successor at the helm of the army and his naval counterpart, two of the most powerful national security anchors in Mexico.
“If we are not talking about a narco state, one can certainly talk about a narco government and, without a doubt, a government of the mafiosi,” said López Obrador. “We clean up and clean up public life.”
Peña Nieto served six years until December 2018. Several members of his cabinet and his party have been implicated in high-level corruption cases, sometimes including allegations of links to organized crime.
Under Cienfuegos, the army was charged with extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, including the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, in which 22 members of the drug gang were executed.
The armed forces have played an increasingly important role in fighting crime in Mexico, and have been viewed by some as being less prone to corruption than the police.
The arrest of Cienfuegos follows the arrest of ex-President Felipe Calderón’s security minister, Genaro Garcia Luna, in Texas in 2019.
Luna is on trial in New York on suspicion of taking millions in bribes from Joaquin’s “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, which he has been tasked with fighting.
It has long been rumored that elements of the army in the northern state of Sinaloa have ties to the cartel formerly led by crime king Guzmán, who controlled much of the illegal drug trafficking in the western hemisphere for nearly three decades.
Guzmán is now in a US prison after receiving a life sentence of plus 30 years in July.
The US and Mexican governments portrayed Guzmán’s arrest and conviction as a great victory, but analysts say his Sinaloa cartel continued to hum without him in its reign of terror from its base in Culiacan.
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The high-level arrest of Cienfuegos comes less than three weeks before the US presidential election.
President Donald Trump, who was seeking a second term, made curbing cartel activity a major political goal when he took office in 2017.
The war against the cartels has hit the Mexican people hard. Since 2006, there have been 150,000 organized crime-related murders in Mexico Research report of the congress released this year. According to the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 73,000 people were reported missing from 2007 to mid-2020.
A federal grand jury returned the charges against Cienfuegos in August 2019.
Reuters contributed to this report.