Mexico's ex-defense chief helped ship tons of cocaine and heroin, charges say

Drazen Jorgic and Diego Oré, Reuters

Posted at Oct 17 2020 05:43 AM

Intercepted Blackberry messages led to downfall

Mexico's then Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda attends a flag-raising ceremony honoring the victims of the September 1985 and 2017 earthquakes at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico September 19, 2018. Daniel Becerril, Reuters/File

MEXICO CITY - 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, US prosecutors said.

Cienfuegos, arrested at Los Angeles airport on Thursday, took bribes in return for protection that included warning cartel members about US 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 US 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 US 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," US 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."

NO INTERFERENCE

US 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 tons 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 US 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 US investigation led to the murder of a cartel member wrongly believed to be assisting US 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 US Attorney's office in Brooklyn said was representing the defendant.